Overcoming the inner talk on race day

I originally wrote this back in 2015 for someone I was coaching for a half marathon. It’s my account of a race I ran three weeks before theirs. I wanted to give them an idea of how, whatever your fitness level, if you’re pushing to your limits, you will experience voices / self talk trying to get you to ease up or even give up. But I also wanted to provide some of the phrases and ways I use to counter that voice. It’s a skill I learned while coaching volleyball to try and keep a team playing hard to the end of match even if all seems lost.

My race was the New Forest half marathon which took place in mid-September. I’d entered it when I was fit and healthy. I’d written a training plan aiming to get under 1hr30, but then July’s training didn’t go well and I picked up a calf problem in early August. Two weeks before the race I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to run it as I was exhausted at the end of my Sunday ‘long’ runs on Sundays and these were only covering 7½ miles at paces close to 9min/mile. Nothing like the 13+ miles I’d need to cover in the half.

Nonetheless in the last week my fitness seemed to return and I went from thinking 1hr45 was a possibility to turning up on race day and deciding to target sub-1hr40 (which is 7min36/mile pace).  Basically I hadn’t run longer than 10-miles since July 19th and almost all my recent miles have been up around 9min/mile so nothing close to where I was actually intending to run. I really didn’t know how it would go.


About 20 mins before the start – I had a 5-min jog at 10min/mile pace [2½ mins slower than race pace] and then finished off with a couple of strides at 8min/mile pace [engaging race pace muscles]. That was my warmup.

In the start funnel I was in the wrong place for 1hr40 due to the way they organised it so I knew I had a few people to get past but just took it nice and easy and told myselfIt’s extra warmup“. With the early bunching of runners and wanting to get past them, I told myselfWait until the gaps appeared then move through them”. The first mile came in at 7min40. The next at 7min30. Everything was feeling comfortable and I was on target.

I continued running at around this pace and it felt ok. Much of the course was on gravel paths at this stage and I felt pretty strong over the next four miles (7min29, 33, 37, 25). So now I’d reached at mile six with things still feeling manageable, but I was also slightly questioning how long will I be able to keep this up given my lack of training?

The watch was beginning to consistently read around 7min25, and I was a little concerned I might be overdoing things given my original 1hr40 intention, . But I decided to just stick with it and take whatever comes. The seventh mile came in at 7min27 and mile 8 at 7min16, but things were beginning to feel tough within my body. We’d also hit a little bit of light headwind out in the open and there were some gradients to go up, but gradients also go down which explains the quicker mile 8.

By this point my accumulated time was putting me in for 1hr37 and I was averaging about 7min25/mile. With only five miles to go, I told myself “Just hang on as best I can and get whatever time that brings me“. Even if I ran a minute per mile slower from here onwards, I’d only be adding five minutes to 1hr37 and finishing in 1hr42. But realistically you aren’t going to slow by that much if you keep putting one foot in front of the other as best you can. So most likely it would be 20secs/mile over the next 2-3 (+1min) and then maybe 1-min/mile over the last two (+2mins) which would still be 1hr40.

When the Mile 9 marker rolled around, I felt like giving up and downgrading to a jog as the legs were really beginning to feel it. But the mile itself clocked in at 7min25 – so no time added to the new 1hr37 goal. I told myselfJust keep running hard and see how far you can get“.

Mile 10 was 7min26 – I told myself3.1 miles to go. Just a parkrun – I do those all the time“.

Mile 11 was 7min25. I was basically running on my physical limit rather than really good pacing. This pace was the leftover from when my training was good in July.

But now with only two miles to go, I DEFINITELY wanted to give up. Told myselfIt’s only 15mins running left.“. Somewhere in the back of my mind a voice was sayingYou’re going to crash and have to walk these last two miles and end up running 1hr50“. I ignored that voice.

I was really beginning to struggle mentally. Then the tail end of the 10K race merged in with us, they were significantly slower and spread out across the path because of where the organisers had placed the drinks station. Mentally it was distracting and frustrating, especially when you’re tired; I wanted to shout at them to “MOVE” but it would be wasting energy. I got past safely after a few hundred yards.

At 11½ miles I glimpsed the finish area through the trees and told myselfNot far to go now. It’s only 1.6 miles, I can see the finish. I do 1.6 miles in warmup all the time.

At mile 12 I felt I was running like a zombie. My legs had slowed, it felt awful. I would have guessed my split time was 8min25 … actually it was 7min40 … within 15 seconds of my other miles. All that had happened is I’d dropped to my marathon pace. So now my predicted time had become 1hr37 and 15 seconds due to the slightly slower mile.

The final mile felt so slowwwww in my legs and it felt like I was jogging. The path became gravelly again, runners around me were starting to leave me behind thereby highlighting my perceived slowness, and although the finish was in sight the course took us on a mile lap around the outside of it. On top of that, one side of the field had a strong headwind to run into. It was all I could do to keep putting one foot in front of the other but that’s what I did and eventually I reached the final finish straight and tried to pick up the pace for a ‘sprint’ finish. I could only top out at 6min25 pace which is my 10K pace! The final mile had felt so slow – yet it came in at 7min30 pace.

So that was my half marathon finishing in 1hr37min07. Well above my expectations of a week before and above what I’d set out to do. On the day I had to give everything to achieve that time. Obviously fully fit I’d have been a much more capable runner but the lack of training put me on my limits.


What can you learn from this?  I want you to understand that when you really run a race to get a PB, it’s going to be as much about having the correct mental attitude as it is to being physically fit. I’ve tried to give you indications on what my self-talk was and what I had to do to hang on in there.

  • Mostly it’s a process of continuing to run as hard as your body will allow, counting down the miles and realising that with the fewer miles left there are, the smaller effect it can have on your overall time.
  • Understand that your mind will tell you anything to try and get you to slow down but you can hang in there and override it to a good extent.
  • When you feel like you’re running through treacle, but you know you’re trying your hardest, the reality is that you’ve probably only dropped by 15-20seconds/mile and ultimately that won’t destroy the time anywhere near as much as you thought it would.

Positive and wishful thinking

At Christmas Day parkrun in Poole, I arrived unsure of what to expect. I’d run 20:26 at The Great Field a month before and 21:01 at Upton House more recently. With Poole being notably faster there was a glimmer of hope I might squeeze under twenty minutes. But I knew I’d run 5x1K intervals earlier in the week so my legs could still be tired. I was happy when I recorded 20:11.

What’s always intrigued me are the runners who can’t be happy with the time they get. My 20:11 on Christmas Day was my fastest parkrun in four years. Yet I know some runners who wouldn’t be happy with that. In response to a time of 20:11 they’d say something like “I wish I could have got under twenty minutes”. Instead of being happy with their fastest time in years they manage to diminish the achievement.

This is wishful thinking in all its glory. Their minds are off somewhere else wishing for what they want, not what’s actually happened. If they could live in the moment they’d savour that time.

– If they ran hard from start to end, giving their absolute best, then there is nothing more they could have done. So what’s to be unhappy about?

– If for some reason, they know didn’t put in full effort then they got the result they deserved. They can’t be unhappy with the time, they need to be unhappy with themselves and their approach. They need to hold themselves accountable, learn the lesson and adjust in the future. With running times, you get out whatever you put in.


People often talk about needing to develop positive thinking or optimism, this is different to wishful thinking. When I run a time of 20:11, it gives me confidence that I will be able to break twenty minutes. I think of all the things I haven’t yet worked on in training. All the sessions of speedwork, tempo running, base-building and pace development that are there to be worked on. On top of that there’s all the potential supplemental stuff like shoes, nutrition, compression socks that might shave seconds off. That’s my version of positive thinking. The only time I ever got downhearted and lost my optimism was a period when I couldn’t see any new openings to try. Even when I’m running badly – it is what it is. Having a plan for how I’m going to work my way out of the slump keeps me positive.

The interesting thing about the wishful thinkers is they call themselves realists yet they don’t live in reality. The truth is they’re pessimists – they can’t even be honest with themselves about what to call themselves. They never dare to dream big or set challenging goals, trying everything they can in pursuit of achieving them. They don’t take responsibility for their training, they don’t try new things or different approaches they keep it as safe as possible. When they run out of their limited array of options, all they can do is wish they could have been faster.

The Learning Process

As a coach I’m fascinated by the learning process. Having coached and participated for years, it’s very easy to forget how difficult learning new skills is. When I started doing sprint drills back in October, I got a reminder of what it’s like to be a clumsy beginner. Three months after regular repetition and careful attention, I’ve got them looking competent and am now finding nuances of technique to work on.

This is not the first thing I’ve learned recently. Just before Christmas I finally acquired another skill which I’ve been struggling with for over thirty years. I started doing The Times Quick Cryptic crossword online. Cryptic crosswords aren’t new to me, a friend first explained them circa 1990. Occasionally, whenever I’ve been sat in a waiting room or there’s a newspaper on the table, I’ve attempted the cryptic with varying levels of success. The ones in the broadsheets have always been beyond me, but I could usually do a few clues in the lesser papers.

My resurgence of interest in cryptics came from a video on Youtube and then I was helped by a daily blog which breaks down each day’s crossword. I was able to look at the answers and see how the clues had been constructed. That’s like getting a coach to help you with your running and point you in the right direction. It’s a shortcut to eliminate doubt and confusion which is a huge issue for beginners of cryptic crosswords and equally problematic when you’re a self-coached runner. When you encounter a problem in your run training, you may find ten different explanations for it online, a good coach will immediately narrow it down to two or three and hopefully pick the correct solution.


What I’d never understood is there’s a language to cryptic crosswords. Certainly I understood the mechanics of hidden words, anagrams and wordplay which is why I could solve the simpler examples. What I didn’t realise is there are many initialisms and abbreviations that crop up time and time again and you can only really learn by regular participation and repetition. To give you concrete examples from today’s; we had the letters ER representing the Queen (Elizabeth Regina), RM for Royal Marine but less obviously a letter D for the word daughter in a clue. On other days you might get MP for politicians, DE for German or EL for the Spanish word and so many more.

Like any language, it takes time to learn. Running has its own language words like aerobic, anaerobic, pace, effort, lactate threshold, fast-twitch muscle all have meanings which are a mystery to the uninitiated.

There is also the language of sessions  – does a runner know what a fartlek is? How to do an A-skip drill? What being asked to run 4 sets of 4x200m with 200m jog recovery and 5-mins between sets means.

All languages take time to learn. It becomes more familiar, the more often you engage with it. Repetition and regular participation help you get accustomed to the language so you barely need to think about what you’re being told. Regular and frequent training get your body used to the physical language of actual movement.


When I began the cryptics it was taking two hours or more to complete one crossword. As you might guess, I had a lot of free time over the Christmas period! But I didn’t sit and stare at the crossword for two hours, I did it in 20-40 minutes stints. I’d do as much as I could, ponder the clues for another ten minutes then give up and come back later. Over the course of a day I’d get most of the crossword done in these stints and that approach is like how runners start to get faster. They do little manageable stints that total up to something approaching success. They start off running every other day for a short time. Then they lengthen the time and add in extra days. Eventually they try an interval session to break the fast efforts down into something more manageable.


Initially I couldn’t complete a cryptic without using an anagram solver, needing the online reveal to get a particular answer, or making wild guesses and checking the answer to narrow down correct letters. My first decent effort took a good 2hr30 to complete and I was super proud of myself to get it done, even if I did finish it with a little help on the last 2-3 clues. Perhaps the most significant part was what came next, it gave me confidence that I could do these damn cryptics and so I persevered.

As the week wore on, I found myself getting more familiar with the language of clues. I began to look at them as a set of words and be able to parse what answer the crossword setter was looking for me to provide. That familiarity is rather like what happens with your body as you get used to running. The first occasion you go out and run, you probably go off too quick and feel uncomfortable. Subsequent sessions you begin to know your limitations and your body begins to feel less wonky than it did. This feeling is familiar to almost any runner, even the dedicated coming back from injury.


The first time I completed the crossword without any help at all, it took me just under an hour and I did it in one stint. The following week I managed one in thirty-one minutes. The improvement was exciting, I began to get the idea I’d cracked these and I’d always be doing them in half an hour. How wrong I was. The next day I was back to wrestling with it for over an hour and a quarter. I bet there’s not a runner alive who hasn’t thought “I’ve finally got training cracked” and then been surprised when it all goes backwards a month later!

Nonetheless the general trend was upwards and in New Year’s week I recorded a time of 24:04. Of course, I was excited. The excitement was slightly dampened when, reading the help blog, it became clear many people had recorded quick times on this one. It was an easy one! But then there’s many people who come to Poole parkrun in search of Personal Bests on its fast, flat course rather than tackle the hills of Upton House or further afield.

All of this summarises to the idea you don’t have to be perfect from the get go. Getting help can quicken up your journey. Repetition and frequent attempts are fundamental to progress. Doing small, manageable stints or efforts avoid overdoing things and getting demotivated. Feeling uncomfortable when you attempt something new is unavoidable. Persistence and a willingness to keep coming back through the tough times are a must. Running is quite literally a journey.

Bad loser

As a kid I was a bad loser. I know this because my parents would point it out when I went stomping off with my arms crossed, a big scowl on my face and tears streaming down my cheeks! Certainly there was much whingeing and while I don’t recall any particular moments, I know I didn’t enjoy losing.

I played all sorts of sports over the following years, some with more regular commitment than others. I played badminton for a year, squash for two, volleyball for many years as well as basketball and 5-a-side football with work colleagues and it didn’t really matter which I was playing, I never enjoyed losing.

That “hate-losing” temperament powered me to try and get better at any sport I tried. If it was a team sport, I would stew for hours about how we’d lost. I’d pick holes in my own play and that of my teammates. I could never understand how they took losing so lightly and would turn up to the next training session and put in low levels of effort. I guess some people are better at rationalising and making up excuses.

Watching televised sport, I’ve often wondered how I would come across if I had to face a post-match interview. Very badly I suspect. Somewhere along the way I at least managed to find the social grace to say and do the right things after matches. I could shake hands with the opposition and congratulate them if they’d won. But if you were actually to ask me to talk about my thoughts and feelings after a match it would be messy and miserable. Once in a while we could lose but if I saw everyone had given their utmost, I could accept losing with good grace.


This hate for losing died down over the past couple of decades. For one thing, I learned losing was an essential skill for getting along with others in life. You can’t win every argument without breaking relationships. Taking up golf helped because the competitive aspect isn’t immediate enough to trigger my competitive instincts. With running I knew I was never going to be good enough to win so my expectations were always low and I always knew I’d run the hardest I could.


Now all of this suggested that being a bad loser was mostly genetic and a state of mind, but as I got further into running I came across an interesting fact about speedwork. If you do too much of it, it turns your system more acidic. Now, we’re not talking like the Xenomorph in Alien whose blood dissolves the floors in spaceships just mildly acidic.

If you ever studied Chemistry at school, you’ll know of the pH scale which runs from 0 – 14 with 7.0 being neutral. Acids are 0 – 7, alkalis are 7 – 14 with the extremes being, as you would expect, very acidic or alkaline. Usually your body usually has a pH value that is the alkaline side of neutral which is something akin to chalk.

Typical pH values for fluids within the human body are 7.35 – 7.45 for blood; 7.4 – 7.6 for saliva and 4.6 – 8.0 for urine. Quite why the latter can be more significantly in the acidic range I’m not sure other than urine involves fluids which have passed through many other areas of the body including the stomach where there are high levels of hydrochloric acid involved in digestion.

If, however, you do high levels of speedwork you can push the body across to the acidic side. The pH value of blood can drop towards the low sixes (e.g. 6.3 – 6.4) and be part of a general imbalance within the body. This is one aspect of overtraining identified by Phil Maffetone. While I don’t like his age-based training formula, his book highlights these sorts of issues with the body and anaerobic training revving up the central nervous system and all the issues that can bring.

Now the whole point here is not to know exactly what pH value your body is at, only to understand that it usually runs in a mildly alkaline state but repeated high intensity training can push it into an undesirable mildly acidic state. This is one reason why recovery runs on the day before and after speedwork, or any other effort session are recommended.


When I ran my first 800m time trial last December it was tough. By the end, I was breathing very hard and I coughed for almost an hour afterwards due to acidosis. But I also found I was in a very bad mood for the rest of the day. When I did my next time trial in April, while I didn’t have the postrun after effects quite so badly, I did get into another black mood. For sure the results of the two time trials weren’t too my liking but they didn’t specifically bother me. The first was simply setting a benchmark, the second was so below expectations that I couldn’t get angry at it. Yet I was grumpy following each of these big runs.

Back in August when I ran my first all-out parkrun for two years, I once again noticed I wasn’t happy afterwards. I’d offered to write the Run Report and fortunately, having pre-prepared it, needed only to fill in a few details before sending it off for publishing within a short time of arriving home. It was strange though because I’d been so enthusiastic earlier in the week with it and then simply submitted it with the minimum of remaining effort.

It would be tempting to put all this down to disappointment at the runs but the depth of moods hinted at something more. When younger me got moody, I assumed it was down to hating to lose and not understanding how to handle it. With a more mature outlook and the rarity of these recent moods, it was clear they were more physiological than psychological.

This came home to me over the past weekend. Once again I ran a fast parkrun. Again I wasn’t overly happy with the time but my mood was ok. I chatted to a couple of friends then nipped into the supermarket to pick up some items on the way home. There was no mood until much later in the day. When I think about it, I did some strength and conditioning when I got home which seems to have tipped me over the edge. I slept badly for the next two nights – another sign of possible overtraining.


When I think back to my black moods in the nineties, I always thought it was down to immaturity and poor psychology. I’m sure to some extent this is correct. But I cannot escape the fact I used to train and play sport a lot harder than I ever do these days. It wasn’t uncommon for me to be playing sport on a lunchtime and again in the evening. Sprinting up and down a basketball court, jumping up and down at a volleyball net, lunging around a squash court or simply doing thirty minutes worth of high intensity effort at circuit training. I was constantly revving the engine playing sport, working a 9-5 job and socialising at clubs and bars on evenings or weekends. No wonder I would sleep for ten hours or more on a weekend. I could be moody, depressive and unable to snap out of it.

I’m sure I was guilty of pushing my pH values into the acidic side of the scale regularly. I was probably young enough to cope with it to some extent. given the younger body recovers quicker. And by training so hard, so frequently, I expect my body had learned to cope better with it. At least able to cope with it until it couldn’t and then my mind would go off down the rabbit hole and see things through the worst possible lens.

Short sprint – Big Goals

As I completed my long run this morning, I was thinking about recent televised races. In particular I was thinking about Charlotte Purdue running 2hr23 in London to become the second fastest British woman ever. What does she do now? That’s what goal-setting is all about, giving yourself and your training a direction.

I’m sure she will sit down with her coach and come up with a plan towards running at the next Olympics in 2024 given that she missed out this year. And in the intervening three years there will be other championships and races to focus on. Each of these will be used as goals to chase.

What I was also wondering was whether she’ll target becoming the fastest British woman ever. To do that she’d have to run 2hr15 to outdo Paula Radcliffe. Knocking eight minutes off your marathon time at that level, especially in her thirties will be almost impossible but that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t target it.


My belief about goals is somewhat existential. It’s not necessarily the achievement of the goal that matters but the act of setting it and going after it. Because having a goal, and a tough one at that, forces you to go to your limits. It forces you to explore all the options.

Let’s say Purdue does decide to try and get down to 2hr15, it’s such a big goal that she’s going to have to look at every single aspect of her training. If it were me I’d look at the coaching, the diet, kit, shoes, strength training, running form. I’d look for gaps in my training e.g. altitude (or hypobaric chamber in place of it); hills, psychology, aids to recovery and so on. Every single aspect.

This is how Alberto Salazaar ran the Nike Oregon Project to try and create success. Unfortunately while it looked to be innovative (e.g. ice caps at aid stations in hot marathons) it also tested the “grey areas” which eventually resulted in Salazaar’s four year ban for overseeing doping.

At the same time as trying to find the untapped potential, you can’t get too far away from what has been successful. In Charlotte’s case, she needs to ensure she can still perform in races to earn her living as a professional. Too much change could see her getting slower or missing her athletic peak.

For us lesser runners you wouldn’t necessarily try every avenue of opportunity. After all, most couldn’t afford to go altitude training or train in the latest shoes every day. But there could certainly be simple changes which leverage into big benefits. For example, getting a coach or even simply following a plan.

Bear in mind that if you have big goals but aren’t logging the miles to begin with, there’s little point in trying the stuff which makes 1% difference. Regular and frequent training is first and foremost the thing that gets you fast. Someone at Purdue’s level is looking for the just noticeable differences that could give her an advantage.


Returning to what I said about it not mattering whether you succeed in achieving big goals, it’s because while Charlotte might not reach Paula’s 2hr15 standard, she could end up breaking 2hr20. That would be a great experience and achievement in itself. Note: Charlotte may not go after Paula’s record because she decides on other goals, I’m just using the suggestion for clarity of writing this.

If you only set goals which are easily ticked off*, you have no reason to explore and investigate all the options. That’s how most people operate, they keep setting achievable goals a little above where they’re at until they repeatedly fail to achieve one. At this point, they believe they’ve reached their potential and go in search of new vistas which have fresh, new easily-achievable goals to accomplish. Think of how many runners quickly move from parkrun to 10K to half marathon to full ones.

* When you set a major, longterm goal it’s important to have milestones on your plan to achieving it. Those milestones are what most people consider to be goals.

Mental toughness

In Is this sustainable? I quoted Chris Boardman talking about how it feels during a race. He said “There’s a constant calculation going on between … How far is it to go? How hard am I trying? Is this sustainable? And if the answer is yes [to the sustainable question], you’re not going hard enough. If the answer is no, it’s too late [because you’ve dropped time by not going harder] so you’re looking for maybe”. I was thinking about this as I ran parkrun and it occurred to me that how you respond to this question shows your level of mental toughness.

The difference between the mentally tough and the ordinary person is that the ordinary person gives up when they realise something isn’t sustainable. The mentally tough person doesn’t accept No for an answer. As I wrote in Denial, they dig in and try to gut it out. They’ll keep trying, hoping to find some kind of energy reserve – they may find it, they may not. In a race against opponents (especially mentally weak ones) not knowing your limitations can make the difference between winning and losing.

It’s fairly obvious that the mentally weak are happy to continue when the answer is Yes and they’ll give up for a No; but I’d venture that it’s the Maybe answer which is enough to get them shutting it down and giving up. As soon as the answer changes to “I’m not entirely sure this is sustainable” which Boardman says is the very thing you’re looking for; the doubt begins to creep in and they give up and fall back to a safe zone.


In recent years, theories of fatigue have moved on from it being caused by a build-up of waste products in the muscles; to being about the brain taking feedback about those build-ups and subconsciously allowing the athlete to keep going, or the mind tempting them to slow down by experiencing build-ups as pain. Therefore elite distance runners are beginning to add mental stress to training sessions to teach the brain, it can cope with more and it’s safe to continue going. You could liken it to walking up a street in the dark. The first time you do it, you’re tentative with each step because you don’t know what’s ahead. But if you repeat the experience and know you managed ten steps safely, you walk those steps quickly the second time.

If you can push through pain in training or races, it’ll give you an extra dimension to your running – it’ll teach your brain that it’s safe to release the unused reserves. This is the bit where mentally weak athletes have a disadvantage. If they aren’t willing to push through the pain, their brain isn’t going to feel safe to allow them to break into their reserves. I’ve met a good many runners who always play it safe. They start off slowly, start at the back of the field, or ease off when exhaustion or heavy breathing threaten. They don’t try to push through the temptation of giving up, they simply give up.

I believe the role of the mental side of running is overplayed in modern literature. No matter how much you want or desire to be the Olympic champion, you still have to train before you can get close to that stage. Physical limitations are still limitations to be addressed by training, not by thinking you can run harder.  But, when Eliud Kipchoge ran the first two sub-2 hour marathon, it’s possible the knowledge of getting within twenty-five seconds on his first attempt was enough to help him find the extra seconds. That’s what mental toughness and training is about, having a confidence to push through Maybe and give it your all.

When the going gets tough, there’s probably more to be eked out than you realise. Pushing hard occasionally in training and races will help the mind know it’s possible.

Olympic thoughts – Is this sustainable?

Day 5 of the Tokyo Olympics had me watching cycling again with more commentary from Chris Boardman. This time it was the men’s individual time trial which was eventually won by Primoz Roglic of Slovenia.

Boardman accurately predicted it would take around 55-mins to cover the course, not too difficult maths when the riders are going at 48km/hr and the course is 44.1km long. At just under an hour it’s an event that’s comparable to elite men’s half marathon running, or in physiological terms it’s being run at Threshold. For lesser runners that might be a 10-mile run or only a 10K – it’s applies to whatever you can cover in an hour.

The nugget of commentary that really struck me was Boardman’s description about riding at Threshold. He stated:

“The first five minutes is free, you don’t feel the pain. That’s the bit where you have to use your head rather than your heart and then it becomes self-regulating, you start to get a feel for the pace, the pain sets in and then you manage it”

What he was describing was how, when you begin a race the legs are free of lactate and waste products that eventually begin to make them feel heavy and the effort to keep them moving gets tougher. With fresh legs it’s easy to go off too fast – build up the lactate quickly and then suffer; the ideal is to ration the build-up evenly over the course of the race. This is true at all race distances and even true during interval training.

After co-commentator Simon Brotherton mentioned that there’s a “fine line between pushing as hard as you can but not going too far into the red” to viewers, Boardman responded with more gold dust:

“There’s a constant calculation going on between …

How far is it to go?

How hard am I trying?

Is this sustainable? And if the answer is yes, you’re not going hard enough. If the answer is no, it’s too late so you’re looking for maybe”

What a fantastic piece of commentary. I must admit the idea of maybe seems quite novel to me. I’ve probably always pushed myself into maybe without realising it and just aimed to hang on, but I’d usually coach people to keep in the comfort zone of yes. We like things to be black-or-white, yes-or-no; Boardman showed that the best in world are risking playing on the edge with maybe!

Next time you’re on the start line at parkrun remember these quotes from Boardman and see how they reflect your experience. The great thing about parkrun is you can test “yes”, “no”, “maybe” over the weeks and begin to learn what each feels like.

Olympic thoughts – All you need is love

Day 3 of the Tokyo Olympics brought Great Britain’s first golds in mountain biking, swimming and diving where it was a story of at last for Tom Daley. Thirteen years ago in Beijing, the nation watched as 14-year-old Tom became a sensation reaching the final. Four years later, at the home games in London he was one of the “poster boys” with his good looks and friendly, amiable personality but could only win bronze in the 10 metre individual event. Another Olympic cycle on brought another bronze in Rio this time in the synchronised event. Many thought he might retire after his tears at not winning again but he rebounded to win gold in the 2017 World Championships.

An Olympic cycle is a long time. Tom has been lucky to have started early and is now in his fourth Olympics at only 27. Yesterday I read Uzbekistan gymnast, Oksana Chusovitina, has retired after her eighth games at age forty-six – her first was in Barcelona almost thirty years ago.

In the years since Rio, Tom has got married to American Dustin Lance Black and become a father. He credits that with helping him to arrive in Tokyo feeling less pressured to win. In the post-gold interviews Tom said he knew that whatever he achieved, good or bad, he’d go home and still feel loved by his husband and three year old Robbie.

It seems to me that buried somewhere in Tom’s psyche was a belief that he was only loveable when he was achieving. I don’t think it’s an unusual belief particularly among many of the younger generation who are constantly being set targets in school and herded into activities to bolster their future CVs rather than for the enjoyment of doing them. The success of our Olympic programmes in recent years has been down to a harder-nosed approach to success and failure, if you aren’t a medal prospect your lottery funding ends and a lifetime of hard work and trying in your sport is dashed in the stroke of an administrator’s pen. The TeamGB Olympic successes we celebrate every four years hide a darker fallout of athletes, swimmers, rowers, boxers, cyclists, martial artists and gymnasts, among others, who couldn’t make the cut.

But the trap of conditional love is also prevalent among older generations who were simply brought up in environments where love wasn’t easily expressed, mistakes were punished and you had to be a genuine winner for your success to be celebrated – they didn’t get participation trophies.

Unconditional love is a concept that most people don’t understand because they don’t see any further than skin deep. They don’t look at the real person beneath but instead choose to love or hate based on looks, behaviours and material success. They allow their own emotional reactions to project onto the other person rather than accepting them for both their flaws and strengths. They don’t understand unconditional love is about valuing people for who they are, not what they are.

Somewhere along the way Tom must have absorbed some kind of message like this. It’s not necessarily down to his parents, it could be his coaches, his teachers or anyone else he’s come into contact with. He seems a rather sensitive soul and was bullied when younger. Dents to his self-esteem may have been papered over through his diving success. Even when he wasn’t winning Olympic golds, he was still receiving love and affection for being one of the best divers in the world, not simply for being Tom Daley.

How much do you want it?

I was woken early by the tap, tap, tapping of a bird outside my bedroom window. With it being nesting season, the birds have built a nest up in the eaves and are flying in and out of it frequently. Trying to locate exactly what part of the house the bird was tapping, I looked out from behind the curtains and noticed my neighbour working out in his back yard. It was 6:15am. Most of it was stretching and limbering up as he prepared to do pull-ups on a frame he’s bought. I was impressed as I watched him machining up and down, one, two, three; nice square angles at the shoulders and elbows, four, five, six; barely pausing or fatiguing as he went on all the way up to fifteen. A little rest then another set before pulling the tarp over the frame and going in.

I’d love to be good at pull-ups but I’ve always struggled with them. I claim that with my long arms, I’m mechanically disadvantaged. There may be some truth to this. Most people have a reach (measured from fingertip to fingertip across the chest) that is the same as their height. This is one of those anatomical novelties* you can easily test. Lie on the floor feet against the wall and put a marker against your height. Then lie the other way and stretch your arms from the wall to the marker and you should find you can just touch it. Except when I do this I stretch out four inches wider than I’m tall! Of course doing pull-ups isn’t simply about arms, they’re also about lats, shoulders and other body muscles which I’ve never been dedicated to working out. My days of going to the gym didn’t last long, it always seemed so soulless.

My “I’d love to be good at pull-ups” never translated into action. I may say it when I see a parkour runner effortlessly pulling themselves over a wall, or when I try them at the gym but I’ve never really committed to getting good at pull-ups. It’s the same with playing the keyboard, playing the harmonica, being able to do handstand press-ups, dunk a basketball or win the lottery. They’re all things I believe would be cool or, great to be able to do, but I’ve never taken committed action long enough to be able to do them.

This isn’t uncommon. I’ve heard the words “I’d love to break …” followed by a time for parkrun or a marathon leave the mouth of numerous runners who then take very little action to achieve that goal.


I felt somewhat in awe of my neighbour’s commitment at being out there, working out at such an early hour until I realised I was doing the same thing with my own plyometric and hill sprint workouts last summer, my 800m training this past winter and my current Sunday long runs at 5am.

It takes a dedicated, longterm approach to get good at a sport or complex activity, few people are naturals.  Before the 800m training, I know there were other things I took action to get good at. I began playing volleyball as an adult and scraped up to playing National League 2nd division. I took golf lessons for three years to be able to break 80 and score a hole-in-one. My running took three months of dedicated training to build a base that took me sub-20 at parkrun and onto other running glories.

I’m not sure why some activities find the power of inspiration to invoke perspiration while others fall by the wayside after a week of trying. But if you ever find yourself saying “I’d love to break 20 minutes for parkrun” or “I’d love to run a marathon in under four hours” ask yourself what’s stopping you. Would you really love to do it or are you in love with the idea of doing it?


If it turns out you do want to improve as a runner (or even just think you do) my weekly sessions can help you improve your speed and fitness, along with oodles of free training advice. If you’re interested in personal coaching to help you reach goals you’d love to achieve then I can help you out with that too. Just drop me a line from the Contact page.

* Another anatomical novelty is your foot should measure the same as the inside of your elbow to the crease of your wrist!

Short sprint – Denial

The runner always had an excuse for why he’d struggled or failed. It was the heat, it was the new shoes, people getting in his way, asthma, a summer cold, anything but the way he trained or his attitude to racing. He never improved and year on year the excuses would keep coming eventually evolving into a simplistic one of getting older and more complicated, but unbreakable, ones like rheumatism or arthritis.


I’ve struggled for years to discern what the semantic difference between an excuse and an explanation is. When a runner tells you why they didn’t do well in the race or training session, an explanation can sound like an excuse, an excuse can sound like an explanation.

I believe the difference is in what you do with that information. By definition, an explanation explains what went wrong. It doesn’t necessarily place the blame here or there, it just observes events and tries to find reasons for poor performance. But an explanation can also provide reasons for a good performance. There’s a detached observation going on which can be used to improve performance next time around. It can take the explanations behind good performance and make them a regular, routine part of training. It can take the explanations behind poor performance and look for countermeasures, interventions and ways to address them so they won’t be problematic in the future.

Excuses though only ever relate to poor performance as a deflection of blame. They’re not there to find reasonable explanations which can be addressed, they’re there to protect ego. At their simplest they’re a denial of the facts and reality. It’s said with alcoholics and other addicts that the first step is admitting there’s a problem. If you’ve ever been around one of these types of people you’ll know how difficult, even impossible, it is to get them to accept the reality of the situation. Until they stop denying there’s a problem they can’t begin to look for ways to address it.


From all this you might think denial is a bad thing. For the most part it is. Yet when you play sport or race, being able to deny the circumstances can be a route to success. Charlie Spedding recounts in his autobiography how, prior to the Seoul Olympic he’d been injured and was struggling in training, but went on to finish 6th through sheer willpower. On the day, he denied his recent form and overachieved. But, it’s important to note, he didn’t use excuses during his training as a reason to give up; he kept training as best he could never making excuses. It was only on the day, he used denial as a short-term strategy to get the absolute best out of himself.