Wim Hof – The Iceman

Wim Hof has gained increasing amounts of attention in recent years for his remarkable feats of endurance which include running a marathon barefoot on Mount Everest, standing packed in ice on the streets of New York in January and swimming 200ft in freezing waters beneath ice. He claims his method can help you sleep better, improve your cognitive and athletic performance, boost your mood, lose weight and alleviate your anxiety simply through some breathing exercises, exposure to the cold and power of the mind.

While his method isn’t going to make you a better runner, I took a look at his book (“The Wim Hof Method”) to see how it might resonate with my own experiences of health. The little I already knew was about that it helped avoid illness and I’ve rarely been ill, perhaps ten working days missed in my life, even then, I could still function. I’ve had an iron constitution over the years and attribute it to keeping physically fit and the power of my mind, just as Wim Hof does.

Although his claims may sound a little far-fetched, his book details on pages 65-68 how researchers injected him with E. coli bacteria which had given flu-like symptoms to all previous subjects. Yet, unlike those 16,000+ people, Wim had none – he remained perfectly healthy. Then afterwards, using his method, he was able to train a group of 12 new subjects in four days and they subsequently experienced no issues with the E. coli injection.

I’ve generally avoided looking into Wim’s method until now. I’m not sure why other than I thought I would get angry or frustrated because his method would be a distortion of what I already know. That it might be a complicated way of achieving what I do simply by going for a run. But reading his book, I’ve found myself nodding along and seeing the overlap between his method and everything I’ve learned about health and incorporated in to my running.

The Wim Hof Method (WHM) is based on three things:

  • Deep breathing. This brings oxygen into your system, removing carbon-dioxide thereby lowering stress, anxiety and inflammation.
  • Exposure to the cold. You turn your shower onto cold after your usual warm wash and then progressively increase how long you endure it, until you are able to bear doing this for two minutes. It shocks the body to improve your vascular system to be able to handle heat or cold quickly as well as getting the blood better at transporting energy and removing waste products.
  • Concentrating the mind on what you want to achieve until your body is aligned and ready to do it.

Deep Breathing

My thoughts on the deep breathing exercises which involve take deliberately inhaling and exhaling to fill the lungs for twenty minutes at the start of the day are limited. It’s very much something that people who meditate do. When I’ve tried meditation and counted my breaths as a guide, I find the speed of breathing slows down which seems to  be due to the body becoming more relaxed and perhaps a little more efficient at using the oxygen it has.

Typically I’m a deep breather anyway as I learned how to breathe with my diaphragm after reading John Douillard’s “Body, Mind and Spirit” book. For a while I did yoga which focused on holding or moving through positions in time with the breath. Sun Salutes are a good example of this.

Typically, while sat at rest, I complete a breath cycle – breathing in, exhaling – in about five seconds (about twelve per minute). The moment I begin to focus on how I breathe and keeping it slower and deeper, it expands to take eight to ten seconds (six or seven per minute). What I tend to find is that the gap between exhaling and the next in breath involves a pause lasting a few seconds. Although I’m not a regular meditator there have been times when I’ve tried and, by the end of a forty-five minute session I’ve found I might be taking up to twenty-five seconds for a single breath cycle! It’s never forced just a consequence of everything slowing down.

I’ve never particularly felt there were any great benefits from breathing, only that it must be preferential to quick, shallow breathing. WIm Hof says that deep breathing will help you alkalize the body (p. 38). It’s quite possible I didn’t realise the benefits I was getting by already doing the right thing.

Cold Showers

The daily cold showers are the aspect of WHM that everyone’s heard about. The idea behind them is to improve the vascular system. By stimulating the skin from a warm environment to a cold one, the body has to react and start pumping blood to these areas to help heat them up again. Wim says this can be achieved within ten days and when I think about the opposite process – acclimatising to a hot environment – the science says this takes two weeks, it’s a similar timeframe.

WHM believes it is this improvement of the vascular system and its ability to work more aerobically that provides more health benefits. There is a crossover here with Phil Maffetone and his work on Maximum Aerobic Function and ensuring the body burns fats rather than sugars anaerobically while training. Too much anaerobic work causes the parasympathetic to rev up, create adrenaline and generally causes the body to become unhealthy due to the waste products caused by anaerobic metabolism. I am in agreement with both Wim Hof and Phil Maffetone about the benefits of building a stronger aerobic system for good health. I’m going to explore their similarities in a future post.

It occurs to me that one of the benefits of Hof’s cold showers is you stimulate the body’s largest organ – the skin. Every inch of the skin has to improve its vascularisation to be able to learn to withstand the cold. When I compare this to running, the majority of the aerobic benefits are found in the legs because that is where the running muscles are located. The best track and road runners in the world have been measured to have a maximal aerobic capacity (VO2max) of around 85ml/kg/min yet higher values have been achieved.  Ultrarunner Kilian Jornet who specialises on mountain trails is measured at 92. The highest VO2max ever recorded is 96.7 by cyclist Oskar Svendsen closely followed by Nordic skier Bjørn Dæhlie at 96. Here we get some insight into why they have higher values – because they are using more muscle. They develop their upper bodies as well as their lower bodies. So, if you challenge the whole body with cold, you are improving your aerobic system significantly. It’s a workout for your body which doesn’t quite seem like exercising. Yet there are strong similarities – anyone taking up an exercise programme knows it hurts in the beginning; likewise the first days of standing in a cold shower is not pleasant.

Of course taking cold showers to improve your aerobic system isn’t going to turn you into a champion runner but Wim is not trying to teach you to become one, only to improve your health.

Using the Will

The final pillar of WHM is using the mind. When you do the cold showers, it is not a case of instantly feeling warm and the experience being comfortable. Every time you set the shower to cold and the water comes out there is a short period where the cold gives you discomfort. It becomes bearable as the body responds but you still sense the cold is there, but you don’t necessarily feel it as uncomfortable.

Another of Wim’s exercises is Horse Stance (p.118) where you standing feet wide and squatting down. There comes a point where the body begins to tell you to stop. You have a choice, quit or go through it. This is the essence, of using the mind; it may tell you it wants to stop but you can keep going. As I’ve experimented with this, I’ve found I could go for a minute or longer from the time when it began to get difficult.

The power of the mind to achieve more has interested me throughout my life. When I played sports almost daily in my twenties, my mind drove me to overcome pain and keep playing and training hard. I was fascinated by the idea that sport psychology might enable me to go further, reading all manner of books. What I didn’t realise is sport psychology books are generally written for the people who give up at the first hint of difficulty. I was already pushing my limits and there was no sports psychology that would enable me to go further.

Sports psychology and motivation have become big areas of research over the past twenty years. It’s one of the areas left to look at with runners with Tim Noakes’ Central Governor and Samuel Marcora’s Psychobiological Model trying to explain what causes runners to slow down.

Wim Hof – guru?

Hof says he is not a guru and yet because of his life story and approach it is easy to mistake him for one. In the first chapter he tells how doctors never realised his mother was pregnant with twins and so, once his brother had been delivered they were dismissive of her belief there was another baby. But having already delivered four older babies she knew what she was experiencing postbirth wasn’t normal. Even though Wim was in deep, she pushed through the fear to push him out. Wim was born in a cold hallway, purple because of near suffocation. Then he took his first breath and it’s hard not to see the parallels between all this and his work on breathing, the cold and overcoming fear as almost a missionary would. In fact just prior to his birth she yelled “Oh God, let this child live! I will make him a missionary!” (p.2)

So although Wim says he is not a guru, quotes like “Love will restore the beauty of life to your consciousness, and then you reflect it.” (p.103) or “I’m here because of the light. It has guided me on a mission to reveal the true nature of humanity, which is love. It’s time to wake up to that love.” (p.148) do nothing to dispel this idea.

WHM for performance

Chapter 8 is about using the WHM for performance and starts to explain how the training will give you more energy, reduce recovery time and therefore athletic performance. I know if this book had been available when I was in my twenties, I’d have been following it to the letter. That’s because I read John Douillard’s “Body, Mind and Sport” which promised to make your exercise “jet-fuelled” and help you get in the zone. Where Hof has deep breathing as a key pillar of his method, Douillard uses diaphragmatic breathing to the same effect, breathing through the nose to fill the lungs to their maximum and a deliberate expulsion of air to empty them. Where Douillard learned this from yoga and Ayruvedic medicine, Hof discovered it for himself perhaps through similar routes as he was something of a hippy. Both methods ultimately taking you to the same place of having an improved aerobic system to support a healthy body.

For performance, Hof has athletes sit and do 3-4 rounds of power breathing (sixty inhalations/exhalations each round) before going for a long distance run or cycle. Douillard take the approach of making the warm-up active using yoga Sun Salutes and then starting exercising very slowly, listening to the body and only increasing pace when it is comfortable to do so. Personally, I follow Douillard’s approach of starting slowly but don’t bother with Sun Salutes or nose-breathing.

By Hof’s own admission he isn’t a genetic freak or special, he is simply listening to his body to get the best out of it, the same as Douillard suggested in the 1990s. There is nothing new in either method, it’s simply that most runners or athletes don’t appreciate the benefit of a controlled warm-up. When you come down to it, the idea of building the aerobic base was popularised by New Zealand’s great coach Arthur Lydiard and led to the jogging boom when he explained it to Bill Bowerman.


The danger of books like this is they talk in generalised terms that depend on where you’re coming from. For the average couch potato, the promises are great. When I read Douillard’s book it seemed to promise that I could become a great athlete or runner, partly from how he talked but also the cherry-picked examples he used. At times, within the WHM for Performance chapter I began to get a similar feeling but, of course, I’m better able to contextualise and more self-aware than I was and Hof explicitly states “This isn’t to suggest you will become Lionel Messi or LeBron James, but you will see a marked improvement in your endurance” on page 155 to dismiss any delusions of grandeur.

When I look back at the Douillard book and how physically fit I was in my early twenties, it would for the most part have been difficult to make many gains solely based on aerobic fitness. Wim states you’ll see your resting pulse drop by 30 beats after a few weeks as you remove the stresses and anxiety in your body. I hope that’s not the case because my heart-rate has been measured as low as 28 !! But, this is my point, I’m already a fit, healthy person through running so I can’t expect to see much change. The average couch potato often has a resting pulse of 70-80 if not higher and if they follow the method perhaps it can lower it.

The other area where I struggled with WHM is that he likes the idea of science. His book talks about “aerobic dissimilation”, “vascular system”, “interoception”.  He thinks it’s very important to get the backing of science for his ideas because modern people are inclined to trust science. This is not a bad strategy as, prior to research, people saw him as a genetic freak or simply disbelieved his claims. But I’m also aware science only ‘believes’ what it can measure. While this seems sensible, in running the science focuses on the three variable of VO2max, Lactate Threshold and Running Economy yet in truth you cannot successfully train to be your best simply by focusing on these three measurables. There are so many things science cannot prove because limitations of the method make it impossible so we’re left measuring what can be easily measured which can easily miss the nuanced stuff that matters.

“Breathe mother****ers”

“People come up to me with questions like, “Should I breathe through the nose?” or “The diaphragm this or that,” and I just say “Yeah, breathe mother****ers! Don’t think, just do it!” (p.45)

This quote resonated with me because every new runner feels they need a plan or guidance or the right kit before they can run. I’ve never understood it. You want to run? Just lace up your trainers and go round the block. If you can do one lap, go a little further the next day. If you feel tired, maybe leave it and go out the next day. That’s how I got started – a simple 15-min run to the bottom of the road and back as fast as I could, breathing hard from start to end.

There was no end goal of “running a 5K” or a marathon, it was just train to get fit and it seems to me this is the case with WHM. There is no measure of fitness or goal to his method. He’s not setting you a target of being able to sit in ice for an hour or get your pulse down to 35; it’s not goal-oriented, it’s health-oriented. It’s done at your own pace with a commitment to twenty minutes of deep breathing and a couple of minutes of cold showering each day.

I believe, especially in the modern world, there’s a lot to be said from doing things as part of a routine rather than to achieve a goal.

Having picked up a copy of “The Wim Hof Method” because I needed an extra item to get free delivery from Amazon, I was actually quite pleased to have read it. Like the Maffetone method, I think WHM is open to bastardisation. People cherry pick the headline bits and don’t dig further. Or don’t commit to it longterm. I spoke to one running friend who said he tried the cold showers for a few weeks but didn’t feel it did anything for him and gave up. I suspect it’s the case that because he’s already fit and has a good aerobic system, it’s unlikely to help him.

I appreciate the candidness and straightforward approach of Wim Hof, his book is less about marketing and selling a method for profit than about helping everybody become healthier.

In the next post I’m going to tell you about what happened when I tried two of Hof’s experiments over the past month.

Eilish’s low mileage

Scotland’s Eilish McColgan is the current golden girl of British Athletics. This year she has set distance records, the first occurred in February when she broke Paula Radcliffe’s British half marathon record by 21 seconds in 1:06:26. Then in May, she ran 30:19 to take Radcliffe’s 10K road record and on Monday (June 6th), she ran this time again on the track in Hengelo, Netherlands to set a Scottish record.

The McColgan name is not unfamiliar to followers of running. Her mother, Liz, was the World Champion in 1991 at the 10,000m having already been Commonwealth Games champion in 1986 and 1990 and silver medal winner at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. When she moved up to the marathon distance she won New York (1991), Tokyo (1992) and London (1996) marathons. Eilish’s father, Peter McColgan, was also a talented distance runner who competed for Northern Ireland in the 3,000m steeplechase and 5,000m at the Edinburgh Commonwealth games as well as for Great Britain in the steeplechase at the 1991 World Championships. What a pedigree for Eilish to have!

Not only does she have the genetic advantage but Eilish is also part of a generation of successful female Scottish distance runners. Laura Muir has been the most successful gaining a silver medal at last year’s Tokyo Olympics where she set a British record for the 1,500m in a time of 3:54.50  In 2012, Lynsey Sharp was European champion and competed at the London Olympics in the 800m. She followed this up four years later setting a Scottish record of 1:57.69 while finishing 6th in the Rio Olympic final.

A recent BBC article detailed that this year’s success is down to Eilish undertaking a reduced training load that Liz had to be persuaded would be in Eilish’s best interest. Liz had been running as much as 140 miles per week in her marathon prime.

But this highlights the event differences. Liz was always a long distance runner doing 10,000m and marathons. Following in her dad’s footsteps, Eilish competed in the 3,000m steeplechase for Great Britain at the London Olympics and then the 5,000m in Rio. It wasn’t until 2018 (when she 28 years old) that she began racing longer distances winning the ten mile Great South Run in 54:43. Roll on three years to the Tokyo Olympics and Eilish competed in both the 5,000 and 10,000m. Looking back at her Personal Bests, her time for 800m is 2:07.8 – over ten seconds slower than Lynsey Sharp and her mile is 4:00.97 which is five seconds slower than Muir. It’s clear that although Eilish competes in middle distance races, she lacks the top-end speed to be winner against the best and like her parents is better suited to the longer distances.

So it’s surprising when she talks in the article about how her training increased from 20, 30, 40, 50 miles per week and has only been operating at 65-70 over the last year and a half to two years. It’s not unusual for a world class 800m runner to operate on as little as forty miles per week but Eilish isn’t one. Typically world class 5,000 – 10,00m runners train between 70-100mpw. Given the recent increase in training mileage, it’s no surprise that when Eilish returned to the Great South run last October she was four minutes quicker than three years ago.

There’s no doubt decent mileage is critical to distance running success and Eilish’s approach of starting on low mileage and building up is a good one to follow but far too many runners simply aren’t doing enough mileage to support longterm improvement. Getting the balance right is important and, as Eilish shows, great results can be achieved off moderate mileage.

While I don’t wish to take anything away from how hard I’m sure she’s working in training, it should be noted many road and track records have been broken over the past couple of years due to the innovation of carbon plates in shoes. I am slightly sceptical Eilish would have been breaking Radcliffe’s records without them (at least in the near future); but many past records have been broken due to now-forgotten reasons outside of better athletic prowess. And in the longer term, unless the IAAF backtracks on the use of carbon plates, these records will become the new standard. All power to her – she’s still the best we’ve seen in a long time.

Whatever the reason, I have no doubt Eilish McColgan is going to go on to greater things as she gets the benefit of higher mileages and moves up to the longer distances permanently. At 31 years old, she has potential for another Olympic cycle in her and maybe more. I’m sure she will be looking to emulate her mother by taking on the London Marathon and other Majors.

Bonus content – Eilish is listed in Wikipedia at 1.80m (5’11). In my article on stride length I observed her cadence averaging 172 steps per minute giving her a stride length of 1.97m. It’s easy to think this is because she is tall and to an extent it is. But, as I also pointed out, Eliud Kipchoge (1.67m – 5’6”) has a stride length of almost two metres – about 15% greater than his height.

A quick look back at Paula Radcliffe running mile 5 of her record-setting 2003 London Marathon shows her running with a stride length of 1.67m (186-88 cadence) when she is 1.73m tall (5’8”). It’s a decent stride but it’s shorter than she is!

Bolt runs the 800m

Usain Bolt recently ran his first 800m race. As I’m training for this distance, my interest was piqued to see what he achieved. Bolt, of course, is generally seen as the best sprinter of all time winning multiple gold medals in the 100m and 200m at consecutive Olympics and the World Championships from 2008 to 2016. As a junior his coach had wanted him to become a 400m runner, his best time was 45.28s, but he didn’t enjoy the longer training sessions and it became apparent he could be a champion at the short sprints. Running his first 800 race would be a big step up.

Out of athletics for the past four years, he said he’d been training for this race but it turned out to be part of an advert for a used car dealership. Its premise was that you can get an online valuation for your car quicker than Usain Bolt can run 800m. Bolt in lane 1 versus the customer in lane 6 sat in a comfy chair typing her car’s details into her phone. I’ll embed the video at the bottom, if you want to watch it, but Bolt appears to be jogging round on his way to a 2:40 time for 800 metres. The commentary is overlaid and there’s no sound from the track so I’m tempted to believe it’s masking the director telling him to speed up or slow down to ensure he finishes just slower than the customer. After all it wouldn’t be much of an advert if Bolt wins easily. Actually it’s not much of an advert anyway because I thought they were providing insurance quotes, not a price for your used car.

What I could glean from the footage is Bolt is running at a cadence of around 160 steps per minute which equates to a stride length of 1.88m per step. That’s not unbelievable given he’s 6’5” and when he’s in full sprint mode he’s averaging closer to 2.50 metre per step (and his cadence also up at 250 per minute). It’s deceptive watching the video because it really doesn’t seem like he’s covering much ground until you see his strides around the start-finish line. The slow cadence really does make it look like he’s taking it casually.

Even allowing for some play-acting, I doubt Bolt could currently run it that much faster – bear in mind his pace is 5:20/mile, it’s not that slow. He’s not overweight or unfit but of course he has detrained from his peak athleticism. As the best sprinter in the world, his genetics are geared towards speed. He stated in a 2013 interview that he could run the 800m in 2min05 so that gives us a reference for his ability when he was a trained sprinter. There’s also a segment from Superstars in 1986 on Youtube of Carl Lewis, who was the Olympic champion in the same events as Bolt – the 100m, 200m, 4x100m, where he ran 2min15 for the half mile. So I’m inclined to think a detrained Bolt couldn’t have run 800m much quicker than he did in the advert.

A short postrace interview with Bolt shows him lying on the ground having his legs massaged and breathing hard. His splits for this 800 were 35s and 39s for a 1:14 first lap followed by 44s and 42s for a second lap 1:26. That final 200m being faster suggests he did try to pick up the pace. These splits are fairly consistent with what I experienced in my 800m time trials – when I ran 2:53, my splits were 39 / 43 / 45 / 46 secs and I tried to sprint at the end but my legs were tying up with lactate. It’s a fast start and then struggle to hang on.

One difference is that Bolt can run a significantly faster 200m than I can – his world record is 19.19s – yet at 35sec his opening 200 isn’t much quicker than when I time trialled at 39s. His controlled start may have avoided building up the oxygen debt that leads to heavy breathing.

What I’ve found with all my distance races is that it doesn’t matter how hard you train for speed and to handle oxygen debt, there comes a limit to how fast you can go because the by-products seize the muscles up. When your body is trained for speed lactate and waste products are being produced from start to finish. It’s why for in distance running you need to build a good aerobic system to delay their production so they are only produced at higher speeds.

I can remember finishing parkruns when I was speed-trained, saying there was more to come because my legs never felt tired, yet it was only when I did more easy running that my times got quicker. I had to build aerobically through daily easy, steady and long runs to improve at parkrun and longer distances.

Some people are naturally full of slow-twitch muscle and therefore find it easier to build their aerobic capacity – they’ll start with a bigger base. For those with more fast-twitch, either you stick to the sprints as Bolt did or commit to doing the miles that will develop them aerobically.

Usain Bolt’s 800m in 2:40

Skip to 2min43 to see the race won by American footballer James Lofton in 2:03 with Lewis taking 2nd place

MAF Training review – Part 2 My Experience

This post is the 2nd in a series of six. Other posts can be accessed from the Readables menu tab.

Today I continue my in-depth review of MAF training with a look back at how it went for me in the summer of 2014. In part 1 of this series, I explained most people promote the Maffetone Method as low heart-training, but it’s actually a holistic system including re-evaluating your diet by taking a two week break from refined carbohydrates. I too was in the heretic camp and went with the low heart-rate training only. I didn’t change my diet or try any of the other things Dr Phil Maffetone recommends, partly because if I gave up carbs I wouldn’t have anything left to eat. I read a copy of his book while I was doing the training and was trying to make sense of it as I was going along.

This wasn’t my first experience of low heart-rate training, that occurred over twenty-five years ago as I recounted in this post about John Douillard’s Body, Mind and Sport book. Using “Darth Vader” diaphragmatic nose-breathing, while running to a sub-130 heart-rate, I saw no success at getting faster or achieving the effortless flow state he promised but I kept trying. It was only when I got good at running through pace-based training that I began to see the low heart-rates promised by Douillard. But the idea of low heart-rate training stuck with me and somehow I read about Maffetone training and when the opportunity arose I decided to give it a dedicated shot.

My first two years of committed running (2011-13) saw me recording personal bests at all distances raced but something was missing which was stopping me from hitting the heights I hoped for. I didn’t quite know what it was but the combination of The Redgrave Paradox, a return from a winter virus and wanting to try new things led me to give MAF training a try.

The winter virus knocked my training back for two months and while, I’d missed the half marathon I was aiming for, I was still running capable of running twenty-one minutes at parkrun. With the virus over I began to bulk up training with four mile runs in the morning and another thirty minutes of barefoot running in the evening.

In early May I clocked forty-three minutes at Lymington 10K. A week later I jogged round Bournemouth parkrun in 25:43 with heart-rate averaging 141bpm but hitting a max of 155bpm. I’m not sure why but, that evening I decided to try MAF training. I was 42-years-old, the formula gave me 138bpm and in the past I’d always found my running felt very comfortable at this level. When I was building my first aerobic base three years earlier it was where my heart-rate naturally seemed to fall on easy runs.

Beginnings – May and June

I followed the MAF low HR regime religiously. The first Sunday long run was hellish because I picked a hilly route. I must have stopped and walked thirty times to keep my heart-rate down on the hills but I managed the twelve miles without going over the limit. It was slow at 10:24/mile with the fastest mile being 9:40 and the long uphill into Broadstone taking over eleven minutes. The following week was even slower but I stuck with it. Like all spiritual adepts there were times where I unintentionally fell off the pew and I did have one deliberation exception; at the end of some runs I would do a 150m sprint back to my house. It sent my heart-rate soaring and those moments are not included in any of the stats that follow.

In the first six weeks of training I ran, on average, for eight hours and fifteen minutes covering fifty-five miles yet only spending 1min35 above my MAF-HR of 138. I’m doubtful it’s possible to do any better than this. By the end of June I’d accumulated fifty hours of training but less than ten minutes of it exceeded MAF-HR.

Total time8hr 18min8hr 44min7hr 18min9hr 23min8hr 48min8hr 36min49hr 34min
Above MAF-HR1min071min013min272min193 secs1min289min25

Most days I was running morning and evening yet what’s incredible is, while I was accumulating all this, I still took Fridays off as a rest day. I’m sure that helped parkrun to feel good on a Saturday morning. Monday to Thursday mornings were a shoed run with a barefoot run round a local field in the evening. At weekends, the evening run was shoed. Here’s a sample week from this period.

Time runMileageAvg paceTime above
Monday00:41:414.5Morning run9:22 / mile
00:30:383.6Evening (barefoot)8:31 / mile
Tuesday00:41:064.5Morning run9:14 / mile7 seconds
00:31:033.6Evening (barefoot)8:38 / mile
Wednesday00:41:354.5Morning run9:21 / mile
00:30:273.6Evening (barefoot)8:27 / mile
Thursday00:43:104.5Morning run9:42 / mile8 seconds
00:30:523.6Evening (barefoot)8:34 / mile
Saturday00:31:154.5Bournemouth parkrun9:42 / mile11 seconds
00:34:393.6Evening recovery9:36 / mile
Sunday01:59:5111.7Morning long run10:16 / mile35 seconds
00:34:283.5Evening recovery9:50 / mile

Going further – July into August

In July I decided to change tack. I was still going to train to MAF-HR but the arrangement of my week would be different. The barefoot running had to come to an end. It was a long, hot summer and through June the ground began to harden up. It eventually became like running on concrete and my body simply couldn’t handle it. One thing I’ve haven’t yet been able to sort out in my running is not being a loud and noisy runner who hammers their feet into the ground. I know one guy who can run half marathons comfortably in a pair of Vibram Five Fingers on tarmac but I can’t do it for more than a few yards.

Part of my experimental mindset also wanted to see what would happen if I ran longer distances so rather than splitting my training day into two runs, I usually only ran once but much further.

Below is a training week which totalled 67+ miles and 10+ hours while only exceeding my MAF-HR for nine minutes. This particular week, my Bournemouth parkrun time scraped under twenty-seven minutes compared to the thirty-one minutes when I started. This was as fast as it ever got during MAF-HR training and it stabilised in the twenty-seven minute range in the following weeks.

Time runMileageAvg paceTime above
Monday01:15:478.1Daily run9:18 / mile1min 23secs
Tuesday01:50:4411.7Daily run9:30 / mile4min 15secs
Wednesday01:14:228.2Daily run9:07 / mile12 seconds
Thursday01:52:0911.7Morning run9:37 / mile
00:36:374Evening recovery9:09 / mile12 seconds
Saturday00:26:525.7Bournemouth parkrun8:39 / mile2min 15secs
00:32:383.8Evening recovery8:35 / mile
Sunday02:11:5914.1Long run9:22 / mile44secs

Many people who try low-HR training say they can’t run slowly. Part of it is they go off too fast but sometimes it’s their ego complaining. I never cared if people saw me running slowly. If anyone asked why I was jogging round at the back of parkrun I’d patiently explain the MAF training system with its focus on improving fat-burning over sugar-burning and then get on with doing my thing.

One of the reasons I stayed motivated was I knew the general approach of the elites is to do a block of ten weeks building their base. Sometimes they do this for longer but either way, the idea of replicating this helped me to overcome any doubt I was feeling when results weren’t showing up plus I had a reward in store to delay the gratification. When I’d completed three months of MAF training, I’d go to Poole parkrun and run all-out.

Even though I was completing Bournemouth parkrun 3-4 minutes faster, over those three months there was barely any improvement to my average weekly pace – it was always a few seconds faster or slower than 9:15/mile. The graph below shows this and the one notably slow week was when I totalled 77+ miles!

The reading I’d done suggested it would take three months for the aerobic base to be built. Not knowing better and not seeing any gradual improvement, I took it to be a timeframe where new speed or pace would appear at the end of it.

It therefore came as vindication when I ran Poole parkrun in 19:52 and I was very pleased to break twenty minutes. I’d been running twenty-one minutes before I started and I’d knocked a minute off with training. I now had the encouragement to continue on and see where this system could take me.

Peak experience – August into September

In the week following the parkrun my average pace improved to 8:51/mile – almost thirty seconds quicker. And it stayed there for the next three weeks. I thought I was finally beginning to see the promised gains and even put in occasional barefoot runs around the field again. These were proving quite efficient and I could run nine minutes with heart-rate averaging 115bpm. At my best I ran a sub-25 5K barefoot round the field without exceeding MAF-HR.

My Sunday long runs to Pamphill and back, which had originally been over ten minute miles, were now breaking nine minutes and I was even seeing a sub-8 mile on the downhill into Wimborne. The MAF training all seemed like it was going in the right direction.

Part of my year’s plan had been to do my UK Athletics coaching courses and I’d become a Leader in Running Fitness in May. The next level up, the Coach in Running Fitness course began with a full weekend in Exeter and meant I wasn’t going to be able to do my usual MAF training runs but I wasn’t too concerned as I figured a short rest would help. Over the two days we did many short practical sessions, both coaching and being coached by our partners but nothing extensive. We weren’t sent on one hour runs or anything, just technical drills, jogs and sprints and while my heart-rate was higher on the Sunday morning I thought nothing of it. I couldn’t get out of doing the practicals but I thought it would also be a test of MAF training’s effectiveness, no runner should have to be so perfect in their training if a system works.

Collapse – September into October

On the Monday morning I woke up … eventually. I’d slept for twelve hours, 10pm – 10am, and still felt exhausted. I played it safe and took the day off from running and resumed the next day. While the first couple of miles were ok, by the end of the run I was slowing my pace drastically to avoid breaking the MAF-HR.

Over a weekend I’d gone from being able to run over eight miles in 1hr10 to barely more than seven. In pace terms it had dropped by a minute per mile (8:38 to 9:40/mile pace). It clawed back slightly over the next four weeks but never back to where it had been. It was still an improvement over where it had been in June and July but not at the late August peak. I was still putting in the effort with weeks of 65, 63, 59 and 58 miles but the pace was often the wrong side of 9min/miles.

Enough – October into November and December

I was beginning to lose faith and needed to know where I was at, so in mid-October I went back to Poole parkrun. I’d run 19:52 nine weeks earlier but now I could only achieve 20:39. It had all fallen apart with one weekend of non-MAF training. I felt disheartened and ready to give up. I’d never truly seen the improvement that seems to be promised by low heart-rate training and I couldn’t see myself shuffling through months of my watch beeping at me.

I was scrabbling around for explanations and diving back into the Maffetone book I began to wonder if the increased heart-rates I was seeing were due to overtraining. It can be one of the signs and MAF’s recommendation for overtraining is to cut your training volume back. So this is what I did. All that happened was it became increasingly harder to run to MAF-HR off less and less training.

I was left wondering whether the previous winter’s virus had flared up again even though I otherwise felt fine. I took more and more rest days logging only 55-60 miles in each of November and December; mileages which had once been my weekly exercise had now become monthly. I was done with MAF training. I’d started it in May, shuffled around for months and not got anywhere closer to the best running I’d done in the preceding years. I felt like I was always waiting for it to come to fruition and it never did.

Looking back

Within this post, I’ve tried to sum up my training for people to understand what I experienced while avoiding getting bogged down in the details. Even now I feel it’s quite stat-heavy. Every run I did that summer is recorded in Garmin and on spreadsheets. So many of the runs are virtually identical in their splits, heart-rates and times that there’s little to be gained from reproducing them, a summation seems enough.

I’m split between saying MAF-training worked and saying it didn’t. Unfortunately I didn’t have an outright benchmark to compare between when I started training and the all-out August parkrun that clocked in at 19:52. I think it was an improvement but I’d been capable of running this sort of time in February before I got hit by a virus.

The first question mark is when you look at my average weekly pace over those first three months it doesn’t change. It’s always somewhere around 9:15/mile. It’s hard to make a perfect comparison because I changed routes from the beginning of July but whenever the opening miles were along the same paths, the splits were very similar. It suggests I wasn’t getting any improvement from the MAF training.

It was after the 19:52 Poole parkrun that things picked up. The pace of my Sunday runs were notably quicker than they’d been in May when I was trudging up hills taking over eleven minutes for a mile.

The trouble is the fast parkrun seems to have been the trigger for this improvement and that isn’t part of the MAF training. The whole theory of MAF training is that you will get quicker simply by running below MAF-HR. [It should be pointed out the book allows you to add in some Anaerobic Intervals from time to time, but if you follow what the Youtubers say it’s simply about low HR training. Once you start mixing aerobic and anaerobic work you’re heading back towards conventional training methods.]

The second big question mark about my MAF training is what happened after my run coaching course. I went backwards and never reached the same heights of the 19:52 parkrun again. If you look at it over the whole five months of training there was no improvement – I was capable of running 21-mins at parkrun before, I ran 20:39 after.

I believe I adhered to MAF training as well as anyone could or should be expected to. I logged hundreds of miles in over 200 hours of training at slow paces. In almost six months I only totalled 4½ hours above a heart-rate of 138bpm and that includes two 20-minute parkruns where it was averaging high 160s. The graph below shows the time running with the yellow blocks representing the small percentage of time spent in excess of my MAF-HR. You can barely see any yellow in the first six weeks which reflects how well I was following the system.

What my stats don’t include are the occasional 30-second sprints I did at the end of training runs two or three times each week, or what occurred on my run coaching course. If this were a true scientific experiment they would be question marks against the validity of what I did, but with over 98% of my training as MAF expects I don’t believe they should be the difference maker to its effectiveness.

The biggest disappointment of having followed the MAF training system for all those months is that any gains I did make, didn’t last. I ran 1,345 miles to try and build the fat-burning system as Phil Maffetone suggests. By the time I ran parkrun on Christmas Day I was only able to achieve 21:45 with notably higher heart-rates than they’d been in August. Where I’d averaged 165 then, now I averaged 169. Where the maximum had been 174, now it was 181. In a matter of months, I’d gotten slower and my fat-burning had got worse. While I trained less in November and December, I’d have hoped the conditioning would last for longer.

But perhaps more importantly, whether I think my experiment proved MAF training works or not, here’s how I felt about it.

My overriding memory is of how much I grew to hate it,

I grew to dread the watch beeping at me to slow down.

Many hours were spent each week trudging along at paces close to 10min/mile. There was never any chance to break out and run fast, I was always trudging along barely lifting my knees or opening my stride. I was always waiting for the watch to beep. Not just a single tone but an irritating diddle-iddle-eee like a demented doorbell from the Seventies.

I enjoyed the evening runs much more but that was more down to the novelty of running barefoot laps round a field and feeling the ground fly beneath my feet. The lack of footwear reduced the energy-cost of running and my heart-rate stayed lower so I got to run faster.

But too many hours were spent trudging along in the mornings; automatically slowing down to trudge up hills; forever aware and vigilant for the beep of the watch ordering me to slow down.

While I was highly motivated to give MAF training a good shot, grasping for any sign of improvement, the slow pace meant my legs barely got out of first gear and I was repeatedly trashing the same muscles day after day. Running so many miles left them feeling hollow and lacking spring, and the lack of variety just made it unenjoyable. The only redeeming factor was that this all took place in the warm of the summer months. I’m doubtful I could have stuck with it through a cold, windy, rainy winter.

The one bright spot was the 19:52 parkrun at Poole and that was it. I believe you need more intrinsic feedback and enjoyment when you’re training hard to stay motivated through the tough times. If, for some reason, you aren’t getting that feedback then this is where having a good coach helps out. They will reassure you that you’re on track to achieve what you’re aiming for. They find ways to say “Don’t worry, it’s going to work out”, to point out any successes you haven’t noticed, or explain why the slump you’re experiencing is normal. In this respect, my years of coaching enabled me to self-coach and keep giving positive messages and reinforcement.

Knowing how my running improved in the years after, I realise I’d never use MAF training again. Its monotony and the age-related MAF-HR meant it didn’t work for me.  Becoming a slave to the beep of a watch and heart-rate monitor sucked the enthusiasm out of me.

I know, as I can show to anyone I coach, there are better ways to train. Endurance miles are an important part of the equation but not the only one. It’s possible to mix up bouts of fast and slow running in ways that allow you to get the best out of yourself and see intermediate improvement while the training comes together.

In part 3, I’ll talk further about what I believe the pros and cons of the MAF training system are. When it can work, what you can learn from it and what the issues are.

MAF Training review – Part 1 An Overview

This post is the first in a series of six which originally began as a trilogy – other posts can be accessed from the Readables menu tab.

Occasionally I come across runners on Strava or Youtube waxing lyrically about MAF training. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s a heartrate-based formula created by Phil Maffetone that focuses on building the aerobic system. As well as being a shortening of his name, he says MAF stands for Maximum Aerobic Function.

Phil Maffetone is a retired chiropractor who treated athletes from the 1970s onwards including triathletes like Mark Allen, runners like Marianne Dickerson and ultra-runner Stu Mittelman. Chiropractic is described on Wikipedia as being “concerned with the diagnosis and treatment of mechanical disorders of the musculoskeletal system” and this is the basis of the Maffetone Method.

While there are many articles around the web and Maffetone has an extensive website promoting his methods, the information in this series of articles is mainly drawn from his “The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing”. It’s an attractive 500-page tome going into detail about training, its effects on human physiology and giving many examples of athletes he helped. It manages to avoid being too technical even though there is a good dose of biology thrown in. If you want insight into the human body and keeping it healthy then it’s worth a read.

Low heart-training with MAF

The core of the MAF Method, as others promote it, is low heart-rate training. At its simplest the MAF heart-rate is calculated by subtracting your age from 180 to give a maximum value that shouldn’t be exceeded. It’s not an average heart-rate to run at, it’s the heart-rate you aim to never go above. If you’re thirty years old, your MAF-HR is 180 – 30 = 150 and you try to never go over 150HR on your runs.

Depending on your recent health and training you tweak your MAF-HR by adding on, or subtracting, a few beats. For example, if you’ve been training for two years without injury or illness you can add on five beats to raise the MAF-HR you’ll be working to.

There’s a couple of exceptions anyone under sixteen should use MAF-HR of 165bpm, anyone over sixty-five may add ten beats if they’re in good health. This means almost everybody training to a MAF-HR is doing so between 125-165bpm.

The MAF test

For those who really get into MAF training there is the MAF test. Once every month, you run five miles at your MAF-HR and record the mile splits. The splits will gradually get slower during the run, but over the months you should see the overall numbers improving and your runs getting faster as the following example shows:

Mile 18:218:117:577:44
Mile 28:278:188:057:52
Mile 38:388:268:107:59
Mile 48:448:338:178:09
Mile 58:498:398:248:15
Example results from a series of MAF tests (p. 82)

Ideally you go into each test rested, warm-up prior to the test miles and run the same course under similar conditions every time to keep the comparison valid. Of course with seasonal variations, results can be affected by cold, heat, humidity and high winds but as long as you allow for this, you should see a year-on-year improvement.

The real MAF Method

Training to MAF-HR is the appealing Train to a low heart-rate and your running will get faster headline of MAF training. To the Youtuber and Strava disciples promoting MAF training, this is all it entails to get clicks and views.

In reality this is a cherry-picked aspect of Maffetone’s training philosophy which has the following four key points:

  1. Build a great aerobic base
  2. Eat well
  3. Reduce stress
  4. Improve brain function

As a chiropractor, his focus is on healing people and helping them to stay healthy, so he comes at this from a holistic perspective as the key points show. The focus of his training method is to get the body fuelling its exercise by burning more fat instead of carbohydrates. By staying away from sugar-based anaerobic exercise, stress remain low and the two halves of the autonomic nervous system stay in balance. Too much anaerobic leads to high levels of stress, the body kicking into “fight-or-flight” mode and all the negative effects which are seen in overtraining syndrome.

Certainly the low heart-rate training is a major aspect of the Maffetone Method but once the aerobic system is building up, it doesn’t preclude you from doing some anaerobic exercise. Beyond evaluating what you eat and how you train; he also gives advice on foot strengthening, shoes, exercising to music, as well as how to reduce stress by setting better boundaries, staying in the present and learning relaxation techniques. To an extent, I’ve only scratched the surface in my summarising – it’s a big book that’s why it’s called “The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing”.

Ultimately the true Maffetone Method is an extensive set of guidance aiming to help you find what will keep you healthy while training extensively. Like any good health system, it’s about learning how your own body reacts to training, to nutrition and identifying any weaknesses that need building up or eliminating. Low heart-rate training is simply the headline being attached to it.

Part 2 can be read by clicking here.

Short sprint – “Run as fast as I can”

Recently the BBC ran an article on Emer McKee, who’s set a 5,000m world record for a twelve year old with a time of 16min40. She’s quoted as saying “Normally I’m just running as fast as I can and just waiting for it to be over,” which is pretty much how any all-out 5K or parkrun should feel.

Emer McKee – world record holder in the 5000m for 12-year-olds

Emer started at parkrun when she was nine and joined a local running club, Willowfield in East Belfast, and has been improving ever since, competing in a range of events from 60 metres up to parkrun but also including long jump and cross-country.

Three points I want to highlight from her story:

  1. As a member of a running club, she is getting decent structured coaching and sessions that enable her to make progress. Although the headline from the article implies she “runs as fast as she can” this refers to her races. It doesn’t necessarily apply to her training. Just going out and running the fastest you can every day in training will bring short term results but eventually you’ll see the gains stop.
  2. It’s taken her three years to reach this stage. She began running parkrun in 2017 and quickly made good progress twenty-nine minutes down to twenty-one by year end. Since then it has taken three years of training to build on that and get down to a sub-17 time.
  3. Being part of a club limits the amount of racing she does and gives time for training to develop. While she’s a regular parkrunner, unlike typical adult runners, the rest of her year is not spent entering 10Ks, half marathons and marathons. The club events she does are all completed within twenty minutes (usually significantly less) and therefore don’t require much recovery. By contrast, adults regularly enter distance races that require more recovery and therefore cut into their ability to train to improve.

The great thing about being twelve years old is she’s got her whole running career ahead of her. She turns up to her club and the coach has already decided what the session is and how it will help her (along with her clubmates) to improve. For the most part, her running priorities are defined by the club’s season.

The coaching of juniors is usually very good because the focus is on developing them, through a structured approach to training, for when they are adults. This approach is one I try to replicate for adults attending my Big Red Running sessions. Sessions build on previous weeks to enable progress in the long-term. If you would like to come to my session then please do. Check the homepage for details and if you have any questions by all means contact me for further info.

Lessons in marathon training

Imagine running your first marathon in 2hr41?  Imagine doing it off less than three months of training? Most people would be pleased with that, but now imagine you were already a great endurance athlete used to training thirty hours every week. This is Gwen Jorgensen’s story.

Graduating to work as a tax accountant in 2009, Gwen Jorgensen was talked into becoming a triathlete by USA Triathlon. She’d been a runner and swimmer through college so only needed to add the cycling skills to enter her first triathlon a year later. She was good enough to finish with elite status.  Two years later, she competed for the USA at the London Olympics coming in 38th after getting a flat tyre in the cycling section. In the following years Gwen became one of the world’s premier female triathletes, being crowned the winner of the ITU’s World Series in 2014 and 2015.

This lined her up as the favourite for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Like the World Series events, the Olympics are a 1.5km swim (taking around twenty minutes), a 40km cycle (1hr) and a 10K run (thirty-five minutes). This is about a quarter of the more famous Ironman triathlons.

In the six months prior to Rio, Jorgensen logged 137 swims, 110 rides and 171 runs. With running being her strength she’s often able to start the run, which is the last part of a triathlon, behind opponents and catch them. She was generally recognised as the fastest runner on the women’s circuit and in Rio ran 34:09 for 10K on her way to taking the gold.

On her way to gold in Rio

Having claimed the Olympic title, Gwen then threw out a curveball, she was going to run the New York Marathon three months later. More accurately she was going to do it in seventy-eight days’ time. She won the Rio gold on 20th August and the New York Marathon was being held on November 6th giving her just twelve weeks and one day to train.

As we now know she ran 2:41:01 to finish 14th and by her own admission she wasn’t happy with that time. Running the NYC marathon was to be the first step towards her goal of winning the (now-cancelled) 2020 Tokyo women’s marathon. The fastest women in the world are running sub-2:20 and in New York she set out with the leaders at 5:40/mile, managing to stay with them for the first five miles before dropping back and finishing the last two miles at seven minute mile pace. The graph below highlights how her performance dropped away in the second half.

Her seventy-eight days of training were less than ideal. She still fitted in triathlon events which meant continuing to train for those and her running mileage came in at fifty miles per week. She’d never run further than ten miles before and with the limited time available, her longest training run was sixteen miles. Another aspect of her training that was less than ideal was she trained off-road which was unlike the tarmac surfaces she encountered in New York.

Gwen’s NYC splits in parkrun terms – a noticeable drop in the second half

So what are the lessons we can learn from this performance? To me, the notable (and somewhat obvious) thing is that even though Gwen never ran longer than sixteen miles in training for her first marathon; her pace was high from the beginning and she was able to get to the end still running. She didn’t end up walking because she has a huge base of fitness from her triathlon training.

On the other hand, her triathlon training wasn’t specific enough to allow her to continue her starting pace and see it all the way through. If you want to get the most out of training then running is going to be better for your marathon than cross-training.

Training off-road didn’t work for Gwen as the tarmac in New York was tough on her legs – she wasn’t accustomed to it. Often elite runners and physios recommend running on softer surfaces to avoid inflicting damage. But I believe this is advice better suited to those running higher mileage. Gwen went from running 30-40 miles per week to 40-50 – it’s not a huge increase.

Also with specificity I’ve known people training for London who do their long Sunday runs over the hilly Purbecks. While it’s nice to get out in the peace and quiet, hills are one thing London doesn’t feature – it’s a flat course other than a slight downhill in the opening miles. Hill training has its place in a training plan as a workout but combining that with a long run is adding unnecessary stress especially for slower runners.

While Gwen is not the first runner I’ve seen who records decent times in half or full marathons off less than perfect training. I’ve seen guys run sub 1hr30 half marathons with barely any long distance training because they’ve got the speed over shorter distances. I’ve done it myself – I ran a 3hr41 marathon with only six weeks where I ran more than thirty miles but I was already running twenty-one minutes for 5K.

This is really key. First you have to be able to run fast, or more specifically you have to have a high lactate threshold which is the result of combining speed and endurance. After that it’s about how much pain you’re willing to suffer as your body fatigues and slows down. Trying to run a marathon on fifty miles per week, in less than three months, with nothing longer than a sixteen mile run wasn’t enough to stop Gwen’s pace dropping in the final miles. I experienced the same on my marathon, I went from running 8:15/mile to 9min/mile in the last six miles.

If you’ve read my post on the 20-mile myth you may wonder, doesn’t this conflict with the Hansons’ idea of not running longer than sixteen miles in training? Superficially it does, but the plans in their book are not aimed at elite runners like Gwen. Their elite plans do more weekly mileage, over a longer training period and go out to twenty miles. The underlying principle of their system is to avoid overdoing long runs if you can’t complete them in two-and-a-half to three hours maximum. I believe that’s good advice.

Chicago 2018 marathon – the wet and windy city

A key driver for Gwen’s change from triathlon to running marathons was a desire to start a family. Typical triathlon training is thirty hours per week with three session per day. Some days that includes a three hour bike ride which, when you add in early morning runs, mid-morning swims, eating and changing is likely too much, although not impossible, to also do justice to raising a baby. Any parent will tell you it’s hard enough as it is. By comparison an elite marathon runner typically trains for thirty to forty-five minutes in the morning straight out of bed and then another longer session in the evening. With a supportive husband, it’s much more manageable.

However things haven’t worked out in the marathon world for Gwen. Her best marathon is 2:36 in Chicago in 2018, which puts her well down the list of American women running the marathon. It’s a time that wasn’t going to be anywhere near the gold medal in Tokyo, so in late 2019 she decided to switch to focusing on the 5,000 or 10,000 metres. Her times are still struggling to be world-class but it’s clear that while she was great at Olympic-distance triathlon she hasn’t turned out be the endurance monster many expected.

Come this autumn we’ll see how all that training has worked out for her with the postponed Tokyo Olympics. Will she even be there? In my opinion, whichever way you look at it she’s had an enjoyably challenging decade. She began it working sixty-plus hour weeks as an accountant which by all accounts (pun intended) she enjoyed. She then became less cerebral, pushing herself physically and competing in two Olympics, winning gold in one. As a triathlete she travelled around the world for the World Series events and at one stage seemed unbeatable with thirteen consecutive wins, then as the joy of parenthood beckoned she took on a new challenge and all that entails. Whatever happens I’d sum that up as living life to the max.

Charlie Spedding’s success

Recently I’ve been reading Charlie Spedding’s autobiography “from last to first”.  He’s a runner I only remember because he was one of the early winners of the London Marathon and being a trivia buff it was the sort of factual list I knew off by heart at one time. The following year he finished second in a time of 2:08:33, which remained the English record until 2014, as he relinquished his title to Welshman Steve Jones.

Published in 2009, “from last to first” looks back to Charlie’s running career which ended twenty years earlier after the Seoul Olympics. Like all autobiographies, it tells of his early life, parents and formative years in running. It details his two major successes, winning the London Marathon and a bronze medal at the Los Angeles Olympic, events which occurred a few months apart in 1984 as well as a copy of his training diary between them. The final chapters of the book give an overview of how he trained and brings us up to date with some of his thoughts on the reasons behind the nation’s lack of health and prospects for future running success.

At just over two hundred pages, the book is well written and often humorous. As a pharmacist, he clearly has an understanding of science yet is able to tell his story without unnecessarily resorting to big words or jargon. I laughed out loud when he recalled his time at Chorister School in Durham where “One of the lads I played with was a boy called Tony Blair. I don’t recall his skill with the ball, but I do remember his ability to make up rules of the game to suit his team’s situation.” Also the tale of how he was invited to do an inspirational talk at a local psychiatric hospital. Introduced to a patient by the doctor as “This is Charlie Spedding. He’s an Olympic bronze medallist in the marathon”, the patient replied “That’s alright, I thought I was Henry the Eighth when I got here.”

About to undergo Achilles surgery in the 1970s, he almost died in hospital due to anaphylactic shock caused by an allergic reaction to a drug. It’s interesting to think that, at the time, surgery was deemed the way to fix these issues. Derek Clayton stated in his autobiography that he’d had nine operations for problems which included his Achilles. Nowadays we understand surgery isn’t necessarily the solution, heel drops can resolve it. My friend, Simon rehabilitated his Achilles simply by doing a month of very easy running after racing twenty-five times in a year. Charlie notes late on that he avoided further Achilles issues when he was in the United States by getting regular massages.

Throughout the book, Charlie impresses how important attitude and mindset were to his succcess. He talks about how he was fortieth or forty-first academically in a class of 42 at junior school but went on to achieve a degree and running his own business. When he first played sport, he wanted to be a footballer but wasn’t good enough; when he ran sprints he was last but then found cross-country and finished second in his first race. Having found what he was good at, he then worked hard at it.

After a decade of high level national running as part of Gateshead Harriers, he sat in a pub and rethought his attitude as to what he needed to do to reach his potential. He realised he needed to be more positive in his vocabulary, to be specific about his goals and to be willing to think differently if he was going to achieve more than the average person. His underlying philosophy was one of getting the best out of himself for whatever talent he had and accepting that as success.

I found many parallels in his writing to how I’ve lived my own life apart, of course, from winning the London marathon or going to the Olympics. The attitude and mindset of always giving your best to fulfil your potential are one that resonate with me. Also his willingness to try new approaches and not giving up when things haven’t worked out. It’s something of a cliché to say “how bad do you want it?” is the determining factor but I’ve met many people who say they want to achieve good times in their running but aren’t then willing to make it a priority or get out of their comfort zone. There’s nothing wrong with not doing those things but I believe it’s best not to talk about your desire for improvement if you’re not willing to do the things that are firmly within your control. It’s like wanting to win the lottery but refusing to buy a ticket.

I enjoyed reading this book for its refreshing honesty and humour. It was a very easy read and, as I was loaned this copy, I’ll probably look to pick up my own one in the future for a reread. As an aside, the hospital in which Charlie Spedding nearly died is the one where I was born!