Twelve years into competing, I sometimes ask myself why I’m still doing it. There’s something strangely addictive about the whole thing; physical self-improvement, a sense of community, the realisation of personal goals, performing in front of crowds; the list goes on. With the accumulation of thousands of hours of practice comes not just elite performances but a sense of personal identity. I’m a sprinter. That’s part of me. But I also like other sports, experimental music, satirical literature, documentary film and indie cinema. All of these things make up who I am. But none more so than sprinting. And it’s difficult to fathom why.
It’s true that experiences in life change who you are. Committing to something for a number of years makes that thing a huge part of your self, because, as time passes, we change. We, like the world we create are in constant flux. Our bodies regenerate as we stand still in the present and every seven years our organs are organically recycled. For every hour of practice accumulated, you become more track. And track becomes more you. Movement-patterns become habitual and the track or gym has a home-like feel. And you’ll never be the same again.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice; for it is not the same river, nor the same man’ – Heraclitus.
It’s easy for the sport to get a hold on you. It’s easy to get lost in the hopes and dreams of one day making it. But track and field is a very difficult sport and unfortunately ninety-nine percent of those that participate won’t reach the top. So it’s easy to become deluded and tied up in unattainable long-term goals and #RoadToRio-esque pipe dreams. It’s easy to feel defeat in watching the success of others from afar. But it’s failure that makes us learn, improve and better ourselves. Failure becomes something we accept, embrace, and learn not to fear. It’s part of the journey to success, so learn to enjoy it. Because most of us will never reach our destination.
And so I’ve embraced the shortfalls along the way. Below-par performances feel awful! But winning a national title feels great! But getting injured feels awful! So continues the cycle. I can sometimes feel like I’m wasting days, weeks, months of my life. After a bad session, I would drive home and think “Well, that’s three hours of my life I’m never getting back“. But the irony of this, of course, is that every three hours of your life are three hours you’ll never get back.
With diet and nutrition, I found something else to satisfy my addictive nature. I started consuming 40g of whey protein daily in 2009 and have more or less stuck with it over the last seven years, though I’m not sure why. No one’s ever woken up after completing a grueling double-session the day before and thought “Yes, I tell you what, I’m really feeling that protein work. That stuff is fucking magic.” Occasionally, a two kilo protein case runs out and I’m reluctant to buy another. But I do, obviously, a fortnight or so later. I also began smashing through various ‘Super Greens’ supplements. Ingredients such as chlorella, spirulina and wheatgrass are difficult to get when you’re a normal person, with a real life job, and friends, and live in London. So I consumed vast amounts of supergeen foods, which of course, didn’t really make a difference.
I’m always willing to jump on the wave of the latest supplement trend and I’ve spent hundreds, maybe thousands, of pounds on nutrition over the years that I’m pretty sure hasn’t worked. I’ve supplemented with, in alphabetical order; Beetroot, Beta-Alanine, Biotin, Citrulline Malate, Creatine, Glucosamine, L-Glutamine, D Aspartic Acid, DMAE, Melatonin, Multivitamins, Omega 3-6-9, Pre-Workouts, Post-Workouts, Protein, Super-Greens, Tribulus, Vitamin D, ZMA. If it’s batch-tested and people are taking it, it’s good enough for me.
Then come the diets. Firstly, when I’m in training or in season, I don’t drink or consume any drugs. Not a drop of beer or sip of wine, which makes going out with my mates pretty challenging (don’t worry I’ve got a routine). I’ve tried to eat like a bodybuilder – knocking back watery oats in the morning, large quantities of white meats, brown rice and broccoli, and round-the-clock supplements. I’ve tried cutting out carbs, I’ve tried increasing carbs and I’ve tried consuming ridiculous amounts of protein. I’ve raced at 64kg with a six-pack having eaten strictly clean and completed large volumes of training, and I’ve raced at 69kg eating whatever I want, with less abs and a minimum-dosage training programme. The results in performance were pretty much the same.
In 2015, I jumped on the latest trend. I was going vegan. I bought vegan protein, prepared vegan recipes, (eating a lot of raw fruit and veg), made my girlfriend turn vegan, told all my friends how good being vegan was, and ate 90% plant strong. Look at me go. I was eating sustainably. I was saving the dolphins.
The truth is, there are so many factors contributing to elite performance, that periods where I may have had the best diet or took the latest supplement were not necessarily when I ran at my very best. Instead, it was when I had long injury-free spells, little to no stress and consistent training blocks where I was enjoying what I was doing; it was on these occasions where I would run PBs.
Your personal best is never good enough. I’ve run times I’ve been happy with, but I found myself always wanting more. When I ran 20.6 into a headwind, it made me curious as to what I could do with a metre-per-second tailwind. It’s this curiosity – the what if? – that keeps me returning to competition season after season. Although never truly satisfied with a given performance, I often feel a sense of achievement when I look back retrospectively. I reflect on a championship win, or a personal best, in times of poor form or injury, and enjoy remembering the feeling of accomplishment, though I very rarely sit and enjoy it in the moment.
Travelling abroad to tiny, budget track meets around Europe is overrated. It sounds like going on tour. But it’s quite shit. I’ve been to sunny Spain and the Algarve; poor accommodation and food, but the weather was great. I’ve been to picturesque small towns in Italy, Switzerland and France. They weren’t so bad. I’ve been to Prague, Belgrade, Riga, Korsholm and Bydgoszcz. I’m sure they are all great. But the budget athlete experience allows you to see the inside of a two star hotel room for 24 hours, before being ferried straight back to the airport in competition kit after the race. It includes a bizarre experience of waiting at a small hut beside an athletics track, haggling and hoping to be reimbursed flight money (and the odd bit of prize money) in European currency. I once heard that a good compromise leaves both parties dissatisfied. This held very true in this situation.
‘Yes I spent £70 on valet parking at Gatwick… You said all travel expenses paid for. Surely that includes valet parking?’
‘We give you €100 for flight, free airport transfer and food sir.’
‘Okay, we’ll call it a round €200 and a free water?’
I once bought a £20 flight to Basel, booked a rental car and planned to drive one hundred miles south to a small watch-town named La-Chaux-de-Fonds, just because the track was under the allowable altitude limit, whilst benefiting from the advantage of altitude. The midweek evening competition was equivalent to my college sports day. But I didn’t care, this was European Tour. This was the Road to Rio.
There’s something about the nerves and anxiety of race day that has a lot to be missed. The warm up area, the call-up room, being ushered out on to the track like cattle and stripping down behind your blocks. Never being quite ready at the starter’s orders and trying to conduct yourself post-race in the mix zone whilst short of breath. More than anything, the day of competition carries with it an unrivalled thrill factor; the excitement of showing everyone all the hard you’ve put in, and the elation, or sometimes despair that follows, after the race. I feel much worse physically after a poor performance, yet my fastest races and best performances are always the ones I feel less and remember least, and I don’t know why. Perhaps whenever I catch a good one, the body goes in to autopilot, and routinely executes what it’s been taught through thousands of mundane practice hours. And it seems to come out fairly unscathed on the other side.
Unfortunately, those at the very top are the only athletes looked after, cared for, and paid. Those between the bottom and the brink of making it have nothing, whilst the few at the top have everything. This hierarchy mirrors the economic change in the UK and the US over the last fifty or so years; a gradual migration away from a democratic society and towards plutonomy.
It’s important for national governing bodies to funnel money into the chosen few, in order to achieve performance standards, whilst keeping the rich, rich, and the poor, poor. Whilst those at the top get access to medical treatment, lucrative sponsorship deals and decent appearance fees, those who are a fraction of a second behind, struggle with no help at all. It’s become more common for national governing bodies (Russia took it a little further than anyone else) to sign Therapeutic Use Exemptions for a number of prohibited substances to top athletes for performance benefit. Ask yourself this next time you see elite athletes using Modafinil for their Narcolepsy, Phenylephrine for their Asthma, Insulin for their Diabetes and Thyroxine Sodium for their Hyperthyrodism – all of these elite athletes, doing incredible things, running fast and jumping far, sporting muscular physiques and washboard abs – surely they can’t all be that sick? What if these elite athletes were sitting at a desk doing a 9-5? Would they be taking these medications and consider themselves ill? The guys at the top need to meet performance standards. There’s levels to this cheating game. And it starts at the top.
Aside from this joke, the topic of performance enhancing drugs in Track and Field is too complex to tackle in such few words. But Seb Coe’s suggestion that it is a tiny minority who are cheating is misleading. In certain Men’s events I would consider it to be a majority who are cheating at top level. In last year’s World Championships 100m Final, Asafa Powell, Justin Gatlin, Tyson Gay and Mike Rodgers had all served drug bans. This doesn’t prove that half were cheating, it only proves that half of the 100m finalists had been caught. Athletes have been cheating since the Ancient Olympia, and unfortunately, for as long as fans are wanting to see the unbelievable (9.5s from Bolt etc.) and whilst only those who run to this standard are paid, athletes will continue to cheat, and no deterrent from Coe and his merry men will change this.
Psychologist Carol Dweck refers to the Growth Mindset, a theory that groups together those who battle problems with resilience and view greatness as progressive. Dweck conducted some research among students, where she would give ten year-olds problems that were slightly too difficult for their age-group. Whilst some of the students responded positively, embracing the challenge and showing understanding that their abilities could be developed, others responded negatively, fearing failure and feeling that their intelligence had been up for judgment. The former had the Growth Mindset, the latter showed evidence for a Fixed Mindset. Those with the Growth Mindset believed they could solve the problem, and fearlessly tackled it head on. They showed greater brain activity, engaging deeply, processing their errors, and learning from it as they corrected it. Those with this mindset dream big and believe in their ability. It is common among entrepreneurs and Olympic Champions and links together both Usain Bolt and Richard Branson. It’s what helps an athlete pick themselves up after their worst defeats and succeed in a comeback to their greatest achievements. It helps an athlete believe they can beat the competition and push landmark barriers. Belief, resilience and confidence are key to a positive mindset. These are integral components to success in any realm, but particularly in track and field, where belief is (not literally) half the battle.
With belief such an important part of sporting success, the topic of belief in God is also raised. Those who believe they are blessed – chosen to succeed by a supernatural deity – often perform better. Obviously! They’ve got God on their side! Of course, a belief that the almighty is sitting upstairs rooting for you, watching you run and cheering you on with a cold beer in hand, is most likely going to have a positive effect on your performance. I like to call this the ‘God Placebo’. I believe in the God of Christianity as much as I believe in the thousands of other absurd gods and deities; Zeus, Durga, Nabu, Uzume, Thor, Loki, Chinnamasta, Cronus, Baron Samedi, Dionysus, you get the point. But a genuine belief that the all-powerful is on your side can only be a good thing when it comes to performance.
‘Any belief can have powerful effects, so long as it is held with sufficient conviction.’ – Jonathan Edwards
Faith is big in the sport game. And the impact of faith on performance is largely positive, regardless of whether God exists or not. In can help to cope with anxiety and to believe in one’s own ability. I believe that just as the placebo effect works with pain relief in medicine, many sports people, such as Maradona and Muhammed Ali, have benefitted from a placebo effect with the almighty. To Take Maradonna and Ali as an example, they can’t both be correct in their beliefs.
Either one of the two of their gods exist, in which case one was gaining a placebo advantage, or neither of them exist, and both gained placebo advantage. Either way, God as the placebo effect must have been evident. Religious belief and faith really can enhance performance. But you really have to believe. Believe that you’re #blessed.