Practicing for when it all goes wrong

Marathon season is upon us and I was reflecting back on my 2006 London Marathon when lots went wrong and how I would prepare differently inspired by the story of Seal Team 6’s training for the Bin Laden mission.

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It was my third marathon and for my first one I had been obsessed with learning to drink properly on the run. Racing an elite marathon is treading a tightrope on energy consumption and every extra calorie helps.

I had the bottle size optimised, the concentration of sports drink fine-tuned and could pick bottles of tables at speed with left or right hand. My practice served me well and I was able to wash down a few kilometres worth of extra carbs in those drinks which contributed to two excellent performances.

All well and good, but what if those bottles weren’t there on the table every 5 kilometres? That’s what happened in 2006 and I wasn’t prepared. I got to 5k in about 40th place and no bottle, just wreckage everywhere from the leading groups who had knocked bottles off the tables and they hadn’t been replaced by the volunteers. No worries, it’s only the first of 8 drinks stations I thought. However, the story was repeated at the second table and to make things worse the pace I was running at was faster than I had planned for and it was a cold wet day. Anxiety levels rising, one third into the race, three quarters of an hour without a drink and the prospect of no drink at the next station I backed off the pace and ploughed a lonely furrow to the finish. Although I got the remainder of my drinks and ran what was then a best time of 2hrs 20mins I could and should have been much quicker that day.

Fast forward to Seal Team 6 and their preparation for the Bin Laden mission. they repeatedly practiced in training what they would do if their helicopters crash landed short of the target zone. By the time the mission took off they were well drilled in improvising their way around cock-ups and calamities. Sure enough, one of the helicopters crash landed and yet the team still carried out their mission.

For me, more effective preparation would have involved practicing with the sub-optimal official brand of race drinks which were available every few miles rather than relying on my own rocket fuel mixture at the elite stations every 5km. I could also have had some gels stashed in my shorts for emergencies. Lastly I could have rehearsed the scenario in my mind about the fast pace because the best strategy would have been to stick with the group and improvise on drinks rather than slow down and run solo.

Sometimes it pays to practice a scenario you hope will never materialise.

Bannister the innovator

Roger Bannister was more than just a fast runner. He was an innovator and many of the things he did in pursuit of that record breaking run pushed the boundaries of the time.

For his sub 4 minute mile attempt he enlisted pacemakers, with Chris Brasher running the first two laps and then Chris Chataway taking the tough third lap before Bannister hit the front with just 240m left to the finish. At the time the norm was for runners to just race each other and the winning time was the result of how fast one man could run.

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This sort of team working strategy employed by Bannister was frowned upon by many, indeed some considering it to be unethical or even blatant cheating yet now it is the norm for world record attempts and was taken to a new level with Eliud Kipchoge's 'echelon' formation for the sub 2 marathon attempt.

For the race itself Bannister had a pair of racing shoes (left) hand made by G.T Law & sons and these weighed in at a skinny 4.5 ounces (130 grams). He further shaved some weight by grinding the metal spikes thinner with a grindstone – a focus on technology that the British Skeleton Bobsleigh team would relate to!

Coaching moments - part 2

The second in a series focusing ‘Coaching moments’. A situation we have all experienced, either as participant or observer. Blame.

It might be blaming another person or the situation itself. You know the kind of thing: ‘the report was late because John didn’t complete his part on time’ or ‘I’m not scoring goals because I’m not get good chances created for me’ or ‘why do I keep on getting injured?’

The role of the coach is to create self-awareness. A powerful question could be ‘What do you think you might be contributing to the situation?’

If you want to beat them, join them

Just before Simen Krueger made his bid for victory (Champion thinking 15th Feb) there was another surprising leader of the 30km Skiathlon, Britain’s Andrew Musgrave. This was no early blast to grab 5 minutes of fame on camera but a calculated attempt to win a medal by making a move with less than 15 minutes to the finish. It didn’t quite pay off but a 7th place finish was special. That a skier from a country with no snow should be mixing it with the Norwegians, Canadians and Swiss deep into an Olympic final is worth a closer look.

Four years ago in Sochi Musgrave was back in the pack, several minutes behind the real contenders but his journey to world class had already begun with a brave decision a few years earlier. Realising that if he wanted to compete with the best he had to live like them and learn from them he packed his bags for Norway, learned the language, lived out of a camper van and trained with the best athletes he could find.

I can relate to this as I did something similar in 2003, spending a year in East Africa to learn from the best. For me it was just about self-improvement rather than winning Olympic medals, but it was certainly a life changing experience.

Musgrave’s commitment goes way deeper than my 12 month sabbatical and 6 years later he is still in Norway, winning races there and turning himself into a real contender. On Sunday the results became visible to people outside the small world of cross country skiing. I will be putting some money on a medal in a future World Championships or Beijing 2022

Rounder wheels

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At the 2012 Olympics it was the rumours that British Cycling had developed ‘extra round’ wheels that really got under the skin of their competitors. This week in Pyeongchang it is the skin suits of the British Skeleton Bob team that are causing controversy with their alleged drag reducing seams.

While the scientists will argue over whether these sort of equipment modifications make the sliders go faster and by how much, the real impact may well be all in the mind.

For the recipient of the rounder wheels or rougher seams it is the belief that you have a team behind you leaving no stone unturned that may give your performance a bigger edge than any bit of actual fancy technology. Likewise for a competitor feeling disadvantaged by their 'slower' suit, even if they are not, the belief that they can’t compete can drag their performance down.

On this subject of the mind influencing performance I’m looking forward to getting my hands on Alex Hutchinson’s new book. Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance.

Champion thinking - when it all goes wrong

Simen Krueger fall.jpg

The first race of the men's Cross Country skiing programme in the Olympics produced plenty of drama and a story to inspire.

In the first 200m Simen Krueger of Norway falls and two other skiers fall on top of him (top left). In a scene that looks more like a game of drunken Twister at a New Year's Eve party the competitors eventually extract themselves from the tangle and rejoin the race at the back of the field. For the commentators its clear, these guys' race is over.

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But for Krueger the drama is only just beginning because he also has a broken pole and in the classic technique where using both poles is critical this is a major handicap. Eventually he reaches one of his team servicemen who can give him a new pole (left) and he is back in the race proper.

Over the next kilometres he works his way back to the field doing his best to minimise the extra energy he needs to use and by halfway when they change skis and techniques he has caught the back of the lead group and can recover a bit. It is important he is there because the Norwegian's are planning on using team tactics to challenge pre race favourite, Dario Cologna and Kreuger has a key supporting role in the plan.

With 6km to go Krueger hits the front to force the pace with the intention of weakening Cologna and opening the door for teammate Martin Sundby. But his surge takes everyone by surprise and he quickly opens a gap which builds to 22 seconds before the chase from behind starts.

It is then a question of whether can he hang on as the gap starts to come down with every kilometre. He does and the look of disbelief as he crosses the line to take Gold in his first Olympics says it all. Krueger could have taken the mindset of the commentators after that initial crash and saved himself for another day. Instead he chose to focus on the race one piece at a time and when an opportunity arose he was ready to take it. That is a champion mindset at work.

Coaching moments

Many of us find ourselves in a position to coach without it being our profession or indeed without having had much training in how to coach.

Whether you are a manager being expected to coach your direct reports or a parent coaching the soccer team the prospect of coaching can feel a bit overwhelming. What do I say? When do I say it? How will I know if I am doing it right?

A good place to start is by looking for coaching moments. These are opportunities to ask a question which enables the recipient to deepen their understanding of the situation and hence create the possibility for learning and growth. You don't need to be an expert, just observant and willing to ask a powerful question.

Lets look at an example, Feeling stuck. The recipient is stuck, they can’t make progress on the business project/fitness plan. Rather than telling them what to do the coach can ask a powerful question such as: “What is the first step?”

Think about that question for a moment in relation to something that you are stuck with. It enables the recipient to generate perspective and commit to something manageable which frequently unblocks the whole situation.

Making it your own

There is a scene in Cool Runnings where Jamaican driver Derice is studying the top ranked Swiss team to learn what they do that makes them so good.

He latches on to how they start with a chant of ‘Eins, zwei, drei’ and gets the Jamaican team starting with the same mantra. Unfortunately for the Jamaican’s this routine doesn’t really work for them and herein lies the challenge when we observe excellence in action with the intention of improving our own performance.

In Cool Runnings the excellence learning is actually that the Swiss have a consistency of routine before the start and they do it in a way that is meaningful for them. The impact that this routine has is that it primes then both psychologically and physically for a top performance.

Jamaica get creative and come up with their own chant: "Feel the Rhythm! Feel the Rhyme! Get on up, it's bobsled time! Cool Runnings!". Its only a small change in the grand scheme of things but their starting improves (in the movie) and the rest is history.

Whether you are a business looking at how the best do their demand forecasting or if you are a runner watching an Olympian warming up for a race you need to be able to take the time to make sense of what you have observed and work out how make it applicable in your context.

Culture is catching

I was taking an intensive German class last month and half the class consistently turned up late while the other half were on time. We were struggling to establish an ‘on-time’ norm despite the best efforts of many.

One Friday I was out at my coffee break and doing a few things when I realised I was going to have to finish up quickly and get back. In a flash my mind said to me: ‘don’t rush, its ok to be late. Why bust a gut when you know others aren’t?’. So I came back a few minutes late. And I wasn’t the last one back either. I can’t say I was proud of myself but that is the point.

Culture is catching, whether it is good or bad. Going against the grain is hard work and over time it becomes all to easy to give in. Culture needs constant attention from leaders to create and maintain the environment that they want.

100 days to the London Marathon – Help!

For some people 100 days until the London Marthon means time to hit the panic button while for others it still feels light years away.

Whichever camp you are in there are a few simple principles that you can keep in mind to help you arrive at the start line as well prepared as possible.

1.    Start where you are: Your fitness levels right now are what thay are. Accept it. Design your training plan based on what you can do right now, not what you hoped you could do or feel that you ought to be able to do. If your longest run right now is an hour then make the next one an hour and a quarter (not 2 hours because that’s what the plan says).

2.    Increase progressively: give your body time to adapt. It is easy to increase training loads too quickly, especially if you are focused on reaching a certain mileage/long run distance in March. Too often people force it and then get sick or injured and then you miss training time and it makes the situation worse. The consequence of this is that you may not get as much training done as you would like before the tapers starts (No 4.). You need to accept that 80 days gradual progression and a good taper beats forcing it and getting hurt. Trust yourself that on race day the adrenalin and effects of a good taper will see you through.

3.    Recover well: to make sure that your body does absorb the training commit yourself to sleeping more and better while eating good quality food. Until 15th Jan you can access my Recovery course on Teachable for FREE.

4.    Taper like a champion: with three weeks to go ‘the hay is in the barn’ as the American’s like to say. What this means is that by the beginning of April your focus shifts from hard training to being fully recovered for race day. The temptation to squeeze in an extra long run can be overwhelming. Fight it. It takes 20 days for the microscopic muscle damage to repair after a long run. Go long 2 weeks before race day and you will start the race with damaged legs.

So there you have it:

1.    Start where you are

2.    Increase progressively

3.    Recover well

4.    Taper like a champion

Even Elites need to respect these principles although with some modifications if you have years of experience running 100 miles per week.

Thinking Fast and Slow

There are two 'Up' escalators on a recent journey. One is moving and full with people and the other is empty and stationary. As people arrive at the bottom of the escalators they gravitate to the right hand moving escalator, even though that is further away.

These people’s minds have made a shortcut. Empty, stationary escalator = not in use. But what if we slow down and think a bit more critically.

We are in Zürich airport and this is the main route to departures. How likely is it that the escalator is broken? Not very. And if it was, what would we expect to see? Engineers working to repair it or at the very least an ‘out of order’ notice.

A glance to the left and the bottom of the 'Down' escalator shows a little red light to signal don’t get on. Both 'Up' escalators have a little green light.

I step on to the stationary/empty up escalator. Life is breathed into it and it quickly and quietly accelerates. It turns out that the shortcut thinking was wrong.

It’s a classic case of System 1 and System 2 thinking as set out by Daniel Kahneman in his seminal work ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’.

I tell this story because I’ve just finished reading Michael Lewis’ excellent book ‘The Undoing Project’ about Kahneman’s collaboration with Amos Tversky and System 1 and 2 is at the front of my mind right now (if I hadn’t read it recently I would have fallen into the same trap as everybody else!). It’s a cracking good read and I can recommend both books to kick start the year.

Starting a fitness routine - adaptation is a marathon not a sprint

This week I’ve seen lots of people braving the weather to put on sports kit and run. No doubt many are driven by a New Year’s desire to get fit/raise money for charity/experience nature.

Sadly, in 4-8 weeks' history tells us that many of them will be hurt or sick, they will take a break from running (or whatever their chosen activity was) and possibly not get going again for a long time, or until next January.

What we need to remember is that training is a process of breaking down the body at a micro level and then allowing it rebuild itself stronger. Each run tears muscle fibres, depletes glycogen and smashes blood cells.

Unfortunately the re-building part can’t be rushed and our enthusiasm often leads us to do too much of the ‘breaking down’ before we have rebuilt and adapted.

The mantra is to do less than you think you can/should but to do it consistently for 3-4 weeks. When it is feeling easy then you know that you are adapting and you can increase the load. This is as true for a novice runner as for an elite marathon runner.

If you live in the Zürich I will be leading some beginners running courses this spring that will guide you around the overtraining pitfalls. The first course starts in Rapperswil-Jona on 3rd February and places are limited.

All in a word

In football (soccer) the international matches which aren’t part of the World Cup or European Championships are called ‘Friendlies’.

In Rugby Union the international matches which aren’t part of the World Cup or Six Nations are called ‘Test Matches’.

Last autumn (fall) the England football team had ‘Friendlies’ against Brazil and Germany. What should be two of the biggest tests of a footballer’s career were marred by no-shows due to a multitude of minor injuries. The coach was reduced to picking his 3rd, 4th or even 5th choice players in some positions.

The England rugby team had 'Test Matches' against Samoa and Argentina, hardly the All Blacks or Springboks, but the only no-shows were for concussion or broken bones.

Deciding what is important starts with how we label it.

When obvious turns out to be wrong

 Skating and Classic loipe

Skating and Classic loipe

There are two styles of cross country skiing. ‘Freestyle’, which looks like ice skating on long narrow skis and ‘classic’ which looks more like running and the skis move in a straight line. Both share the same track or ‘loipe’ but the classic technique makes use of two parallel grooves, also known as the ‘spoor’, cut into the snow on the side of the loipe. (see photo)

When it comes to going downhill on cross country skis then it is obvious that you make full use of the spoor to guide you down. It acts like rails and helps keeps you on track. At least that is what I thought until this week.

There is tricky downhill section on my local course which includes a turn and nasty camber. I regularly take at least one tumble navigating this section using the spoor (i'm a classic skier). So just for the hell of it I decided to go down the hill on the smooth part of the loipe – no guide rails here. Strangely I got to the bottom without falling over. The next lap I repeated the trick and started doing the same on other hills with similar results.

It turns out that the safety net of the spoor was actually reducing my ability to adapt and correct for any bumps/ice/overbalancing etc. Any mistake in the groove immediately threw me onto my face. On the smooth loipe, which should have been harder, I actually more freedom to adjust.

Its got me thinking, what other obvious solutions might also be wrong?

Sabotaging our own performance

Two nights of poor sleep, both largely self inflicted, and I can feel the negative impact on my performance. Focusing is a bit harder, I’m making more mistakes as I type, the creative juices aren’t really flowing.

Draining interactions with other people (on Twitter, Facebook and in person), light pollution from electronic devices, alcohol, sugary food. These are all dead certs to sabotage our ability to perform at our best.

Recognising the signs and taking some small steps to minimise the sabotage pays big dividends and top performers are masters at minimising self sabotage.

Got a sniffle – to train or not?

It’s the time of year when every other person I meet seems to be coughing or sneezing and having a sensible strategy up your sleeve when the inevitable happens could save you a lot of problems.

Many doctor’s advise the ‘neck check’. Anything below the neck including a sore throat, cough, aches and pains, elevated pulse then you shouldn’t train. If you just have a runny nose or sneezing with no other symptoms, then light exercise should be OK though you should not train long/hard or race because that will supress your immune system further and leave you wide open to more serious illness.

Once your symptoms have passed then make sure to spend a few days gradually increasing your training load before attempting anything hard.

I’ve found with years of experience that a few days off beats trying to muddle though and getting properly sick, which can mess up your training for weeks. Re-frame those few days off as an opportunity to let your body super-compensate from previous training.

Shaking it up

Your typical 10,000m track race gets watched by a handful a folks and a dog – on a good day. No surprise there. Its 25 laps of the track with not a lot of action (to the unitiated eye), topped off with a mad dash for the line if you are lucky.

A few years ago Ben Pochee and the folks at Highgate Harriers decided to tear up the manual. They staged multiple races on one night. With the athlete’s favourite music and lights. The spectators are allowed on the track and can get close enough to be splashed with sweat. The atmposhere rocks, athletes are scrambling to enter, performances are improving.

The Night of the 10,000m PBs has captured the imagination and continued to grow. In 2018 the event will include the European Cup.

Time to spread the revolution…

When competitors become partners for growth

In the world af athletics it is common to see some of the biggest rivals training together as they seek to learn from each other and reach for higher levels of performance.

Colin Jackson and Mark McCoy were the world’s two best sprint hurdlers in the early 1990’s and they worked together under Malcolm Arnold. Mo Farah and Galen Rupp trained together before taking Gold and Silver in London and when I trained in Kenya two of the best Tanzanian’s were welcomed into the world class group in Nyahururu.

Its starting to happen in business too. Groups of professionals from different organisations getting togeter to share their challenges and learn together. I’m involved with the new ‘Think Tank Thursday’ in Zürich – a group of Talent and Learning professionals coming together to get better at what we do.

Yet in team sports its still a rarity. Real Madrid and Manchester United doing a joint pre-seaon training camp? No chance. 49ers and the Packers swopping play books, ha ha. So it was refreshing to see the Wales and England rugby teams announcing a get together for a few days of intensive training designed to learn from each other’s strengths in the scrum and lineout. I’m sure they will both get a huge amount from it.

Where are the hidden learning opportunities in your business?