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Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Top Five Books for Business, Sport and Life

I read a lot.  Typically about a book a fortnight - sometimes more. Probably less than 1% of these are fiction with the majority being related to physiology, nutrition and psychology.  I also pride myself on the fact that I try to read books on views that are diametrically opposed to mine just so I can understand others perspectives (and sometime the basis for people arguments).  As an example I strongly disagree with Vegan beliefs from a nutrition perspective (from an animals rights perspective it's a different story) but have read The China Study and Forks over Knives.  I'm always curious how many Vegans have read Primal Body, Primal Mind and The Real Meal Revolution.

From a business, career and self awareness perspective here are my Top-5 (in no particular order)

How to Win Friends and Influence People - Dale Carnegie 1936
The title is often used in the form of an insult ("Guess they've never read How to Win Friends and Influence People..") but the tips in the book are powerful in their simplicity.  Nearly eighty years since it was first published the messages around owning up to things before they are discovered (proactive accountability) and the secret of Socrates are as relevant now as they were in 1936

The Art of War - Sun Tzu 5th Century AD.
That's right - this manifest was written one and a half millennium ago and is still just as relevant.  Messages like:-
 "To know your enemy you must become your enemy" - to think the way your competition does in order to defeat their strategy 
"He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious" - choose when to fight and when to ignore
are as relevant in business and life in the 21st century as they were in the 5th.  In a similar vein Miyamoto Musashi's The Book of Five Rings published in 1645 similar applies Japanese battlefield strategy to business and life.

When Perfect isn't Good Enough - Martin Anthony and Richard Swinson 1998
When Perfect isn't Good Enough explores the line between attention to detail and perfectionism and
the negative impact on work and relationships of crossing that line.  There are many 'Aha' moments for most people in this book as it explains the difference between 'good' stress (which makes us productive) and bad stress and talks about how stress is in fact based on fear.  Being able to recognise this can significantly reduce the 'stress' and anxiety in many aspects of life.

The Antidote - Happiness for People who cant stand Positive Thinking - Oliver Burkeman 2006
Again a funny title distracts from the true value of this book. In many ways this book is the antithesis of "The Secret" as it explores concepts around applying negative thinking (working out worse case scenarios and defining whether they are that bad anyway) and the negative impact of regimented goals in terms of tunnel vision.

Sucking the Marrow out of Life - John Maclean 2005
Not a business book in the essence of the other four but incredibly powerful and motivating.  If you
ever feel like giving up read this book.  The perseverance around completing the Hawaii Ironman and swimming the English Channel will help put your (often) first world problem in perspective.

Monday, 27 June 2016

The Whyometrics of Plyometrics

You'll often seem me in the local gym jumping from foot to foot or over benches.  Apart from giving the meat-heads something to snigger at what am I actually doing and why ?  It's called Plyometrics.  Whilst the term plyometrics is accredited to the US runner Fred Wilt, plyometrics themselves were originally created by the Russian Yuri Verkhoshansky in the late 1960's, early 1970s.  Over the years a huge number of studies have found benefits to runners and triathletes in doing plyometrics (and that doesn't include for the amusement of others)

Ground Contact time.
The most efficient part of running is when the runner is in the air.  When the runner is on the ground as part of the stride, braking forces via friction are applied and the runner's movement is slowed.  If this ground contact time is reduced then this loss of momentum is also reduced and runner moves more efficiently.  In simple terms plyometrics reduces the time between landing and leaving - from a physiology perspective what this means is reducing the time between the eccentric (lengthening) and concentric (shortening) phase of the muscle movement.  It's important to remember this - we are trying to reduce the rebound time.  So when doing plyometric exercises it's important to mimic this.  For example jumping over a bench or box isn't strictly a plyometric exercise.  Jumping over a box or bench and then IMMEDIATELY jumping straight up and trying to touch the ceiling IS a plyometric exercise as we trying to reduce the time between eccentric and concentric contractions. It is therefore important when doing plyometric exercises to try and minimise time between landing and leaving the ground.

Plyometrics also help improve the elasticity of tendons.  When running, energy is stored within ligaments and tendons (kinetic energy) - plyometrics help improve the storage/release of this energy which further assists in 'spring' and in reducing ground contact time.

Some of the new Garmin watches like the 920XT and 735 measure and record ground contact time so it's easy to track improvements.

Stride Length.
In simple terms running velocity is cadence (how many times you turn your legs over per minute) multiplied by stride length.  Reducing ground contact time improves or increases cadence but there is a finite improvement and generally this is around 195-200spm (steps per minute).  Once cadence is optimal the only way to become faster is to increase stride length (and conversely when stride length is optimal the only way to become faster is increase cadence).  Beginner runners may have a stride length as low as 30-40 centimetres whereas Olympic marathon runners can be up to and even in excess of two metres (and they are typically not very tall either - their stride length is greater than their height).

So how does jumping around improve stride length ?

One of the biggest limiters to stride length is joint range of motion mostly around the hips and hip flexors.  Some people call this flexibility but whatever the term the issue is the same - lack of hip range of motion greatly impacts how long a stride you can take.  Plyometrics facilitates Dynamic Stretching (not to be confused with Ballistic Stretching which can be dangerous).  Dynamic stretching involves taking a muscle (or joint) progressively out to it's full range as opposed to Ballistic which can take a joint or muscle beyond it's range.  Dynamic stretching is more effective than static stretching too as it over-rides the brain in restricting muscle range via the golgi reflex.

For runners, plyometric exercises such as split lunge jumps dynamically stretch the hip flexors and glutes to quickly improve Range of Motion.  Split Lunge Jumps involve standing in a lunge position, jumping up in the air from that position, swapping legs in mid air and landing in the opposite lunge stance.  As mentioned above you then want to immediately jump and swap back to the original lunge position.

Injury Prevention / Support Muscle Recruitment.
Many injuries including the common ITB issues are caused by support muscle activation (or lack of).  Unfortunately a lot of physio exercises are focused on muscle strengthening rather than activation.  For example side leg raises are great for strengthening the glute medius muscle (which helps stops the knee dropping in and aggravating the ITB) but does little to help with ensuring the muscle 'switches on' at the right time when running.  By forcing the body to try and stabilise itself (or fall over giving the meat-heads further things to snigger about) plyometrics cause subconscious activation of the support muscles.

Rather than doing leg side raises for the glute medius I recommend lateral hops. Stand on one leg.  Hop to the opposite side as far as possible and land on the other leg.  Hop back.  If it takes you a long time to stabilise/balance it's a good indicator that your stabilising muscles aren't working or activating very well.

So whilst they look trivial and are often the sessions people 'miss' (funny how an athlete will get up at 4am and run two hours in the rain but are too 'busy' for a fifteen minute plyo session) plyometics can add more value than simply just running more and in a much more time efficient manner.  

What are some of my favorite plyometic exercises for runners ?  Here are a couple :-

- Split Lunge Jump (as mentioned under stride length)
- Lateral Hops (as mentioned under Injury Prevention)
- Jump down box springs (stand on a box or bench, jump down and on landing immediately jump up and touch the ceiling)
- Box Hops. (Standing on one leg hop forward towards a box and then immediately hop up onto the box)

Rather than reps it is better to use time ie complete as many reps of an exercise in sixty seconds.  This also facilitates increasing the speed at which you are doing the reps which, in turn, makes the exercise more effective.

Monday, 6 June 2016

The Personal Best (PB) Delimma

Before reading this I want you to do a simple test.

Write down your immediate response to this scenario.  Don't over think it, don't go back and change your answer.

You have a current half marathon running PB of 1 hour and 50 minutes.

You do a 5 kilometer running test.

Based on a well proven formula that has been used to coach Olympic runners and world record holders your coach tell you that you can run a half marathon in 1 hour and 39 minutes (4:41 minutes per kilometre) and tell you to run at that pace for a half marathon event this weekend.

Your IMMEDIATE response ?

About 10 percent of people, in my experience, answer with just one word - OK.  Of the remainder about one third say "I'll try" and the remainder answer "I'm not sure (or I don't think) I can do that"
And there in lies the delimma

For many people, in order to do something, they have to know or believe they can do it. The problem is that, if that is the case, they will never consciously improve their PB.  They 'know' they can run 21.1 kilometers at 5:13 pace so they can do it. They dont know, or havent proven, they can run that distance at 4:41min/km and therefore dont believe they can. This is especially true of milestone numbers like sub 1:30 in a Half Marathon or Sub 3, Sub 4 hours in a marathon.  Studies of result in runs show clumping of results around these milestone numbers

If you have to believe via proof that you can achieve something in order to do it then, by default, you will never set a PB.

The difference with the 10 percent of people who say OK - and in my experience then typically achieve what they are asked to do is not that they 'believe' they can do it.  After all they technically have no reason to but they a) trust in the information or data given to them based on the results of studies or others and/or b) do not doubt they can do it.  There is a big difference between self belief and lack of self doubt and typically the later is more important in achieving Personal Bests.

Quite often runners or endurance athletes are very analytic which is both a good and bad thing.  Bad in that over analyse things or are governed by their own imperical evidence.  Evidence is, by definition, what HAS happened and therefore what CAN happened is definined by this evidence.  It is interesting, without getting into a religious discussion, how many people believe in things like God or life on other planets with NO evidence to actually support this yet are massively sceptical when it comes to over things.

If you are not one of the 10 percent or one third that say "I'll try" then start to look at whether your need to 'believe' is actually limiting your performance.  Then ask what do you need, outside of the performance itself, to remove any doubts.  It could be talking to one of the 10 percent who have improved their PB's based on the same system that is being used to set your goals.  It could be a case of moving to being one of the 30 perfect and saying "You know what - I'll give it a try" - maybe do this in training rather than an 'A' race if you're not 100% committed.

But the simple, limiting fact is that if you need to do something in order to believe it's possible then you will never set a PB.

Hence the PB delimna.