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.

Short sprint – On streaks

On the last day of the month, I spotted someone on Strava mentioning they’d slogged out a six mile run to keep their streak of 100-mile months going. I’ve got my own experience of streaks, after all I’ve been running every day for over eighteen months now. But I never set out to create a run streak, it just evolved due to Coronavirus and lockdowns.

I learned from parkrunning that a streak can become an albatross around the neck. For the first eighteen months or so of my parkrun life, I attended one wherever I was. It got to the point where the expectations of others to see me, my own desire to be there, plus getting up early on a Saturday morning began to weigh me down. Even the streak itself began to become a relentless pressure. When I picked up an injury in the depths of winter I finally had a reason to break the streak. As soon as I broke the streak all the pressure released and I was no worse off.

I still remained an enthusiastic parkrunner, turning up almost every week, so that by 2015 I’d only missed six parkruns in four years. Among other things I was focused on reaching my 250-club t-shirt and had calculated I’d reach it the following February. Then I changed my mind. Or rather I got my head out of the ego-driven, limitations of my mind that were pushing me on towards the t-shirt as well as the routine that Saturday morning parkrun had become.

What I realised is I’d stopped enjoying parkrun. It was a combination of small things. The journey there and back through heavy traffic. Getting out of bed early for a 6am breakfast. Going to Kings Park in Bournemouth, where an icy wind whips across the fields, and the crowds gather in the shadow of the grandstand while the sun rises behind it. Standing around until the 9am start time to be allowed to go run and then having to weave my way through masses of people who’d gone off too fast. I was no longer running all-out every week but using it as a training session. My love of parkrun had died because it no longer fitted with my needs or what I liked. I wasn’t getting out of it what I had four years earlier.

So I stopped and only attended occasionally.

I began to enjoy my Saturday mornings again. Doing things on my own time and schedule. Getting out of bed when I wanted. Having breakfast when I wanted. Going for the type of run and distance I wanted. Often it was an hour’s easy run closer to midday.

After six months I felt replenished and with a couple of 10K races coming up, I went back knowing some fast parkruns would help my training. Since then this has been the pattern. I go to parkrun when it’s helping me with my training or because I want to see friends or be involved in some way. Streaks should support your training and goals, not be the point of them.


People often notice when a streak is causing them physical issues. They try to run through tightness or tiredness to keep the streak going until their body sends them undeniable signals forcing them to stop.

But streaks can also be detrimental to our mental health. Usually the mental side flags up much earlier as a loss of motivation, bad mood or grumpiness long before any physical problems. We become so focused on how it looks out there to keep our streak going that we don’t take the time to look in here to see how it’s affecting us.

Perception is reality

I never thought of myself as a decent runner. I may have mentioned this previously. I certainly never felt I had any natural talent for running. This wasn’t simply a case of low self-esteem or high personal expectations, life fed this back to me in clear, unambiguous terms. When I was at school I was at the back of cross-country. When we did sprints, I was at the back. When I ran around in the playground with friends they were always faster than me. When I went orienteering I was always one of the slowest in my age-category races.

The only time I ever got a hint I might have some ability was when I inter-railed to Greece with my friend, Steve, and we had a sprint race in the original Athens Olympic stadium.

Steve backdropped by the unusually shaped 1896 Olympics stadium

Admittedly I false-started to get a couple of steps lead on him but as the race went on he wasn’t overtaking me and I was holding him off. It might not sound like much except he’d broken our school record for 400m on sports day when we were in Sixth Form, I believe a time of 56 seconds. Our race took place a few years after leaving school and a couple of months before my first ever 10K race.

A young sun-bronzed traveller poses pretending to awaits the gun

October 1992 and if I could remember anything about my first 10K, I’d lovingly regale you with its story. I know it was in Totton, near Southampton, but I’m not even sure where it started or where the course went, only that I took 48-minutes. The race was full of club runners with a few outsiders like myself testing our mettle.

I know these bits because in those simpler, pre-digital times, races used to send out results booklets about a month after the race (as long as you gave them a self-addressed envelope). It contained a list of everyone’s times – often split into male and female races along with team races, course records, past results and it was all very nice laid out. I poured over it to find my name and time, and somewhere past the middle page staples I found, from clear unambiguous feedback, that I wasn’t that good. The fastest people in the field were close to thirty minutes, the slowest just over an hour, so my forty-eight minutes was closer to the back than the front reinforcing the idea I was below average.

It was no different when I ran my first half marathons four years later. I did three in a couple of months and they all came in around 1hr51 – give or take thirty seconds. Wading through the results, I was somewhere down around the 60th percentile. The fastest runners were closing in on 1hr05, the slowest taking 2hr15. Once again I was closer to the back of the field than the front.

My first marathon followed on soon after the halfs and at 4hr23 it was the same back-of-the-pack story. Among my small group of running friends, the talk was always of being good if you could break four hours so clearly I wasn’t. Obviously the sub-3 was vaunted and only for seriously good runners, I remember looking at the London Marathon results of the time printed, over the next five days, in one of the broadsheet newspapers and seeing that only a thousand of the 40,000 strong field had broken three hours. It seemed like a benchmark which only the talented could achieve. It was a pipe dream for a below-average runner like me. I was a long way off the decent times.


Even ten years ago races were still generally organised by clubs. There were more charity runners and non-club runners than before but it was all relatively niche and those latter categories tended to be bucket listers rather than regulars. The majority still belonged to clubs.

By then I’d improved to have run a 1hr38 half and a 3hr41 marathon, both of which began to give me the idea I was better than I realised but I still wasn’t sure of myself. Unfortunately I was mixing with friends who could run sub-3 marathons and break 1hr20 in a half. Nonetheless I began to find myself running paces I’d never thought myself capable of while training with runners who I saw as much better.

My early parkruns were usually placing somewhere in the top 30-40 in a field of 150-200. That’s not bad but it’s not outstanding. But when I got my training together and started going sub-20 each week, I found myself up towards the front and enjoying the open space of few runners around me. There was no longer a need to navigate through the runner traffic and it felt good to be ahead of the pack.

I also discovered RunBritain with its custom handicap system and ranking of your times against the rest of the running population. I began to see my times over 5K, 10K, half marathon were all good enough to rank in the top 10% that year. While I was miles off the times of the elites, it’s obvious top 10% is decent and it gave me a measure of satisfaction, or rather an accurate measure of where I ranked within the running community.


The growth of running during the 2010s took me by surprise. Professional events companies began to organise more of the mass participation races while an influx of Couch25K and parkrunners gve them a market to sell medals to. The composition of modern results looks very different now when compared to what I saw in the nineties.

Half marathons that once had a 2hr30 cut-off now happily extend those numbers out to three hours and beyond. The consequence of this became clear when one of my friends ran the Liverpool Rock ‘n’ Roll half marathon a few years ago. In a field of 7,000 runners she finished in the top half. In fact closer to the 40th percentile. Now, remembering that I used to be down at the 60th percentile with my 1hr51 times, you’d expect she must have been significantly faster than me, wouldn’t you? Except she wasn’t – her time was 2hr07. When I looked deeper into the results of that race, my 1hr51 times of twenty years ago would have put me in the top 15%.

There’s no doubt I improved over the years. But my move up the field was as much about the other people in the field as it was about me. Where my 20-min parkrun in 2011 gave me a RunBritain ranking of 11.4%, when I ran 19:39 six years later it now put me at 4.2%.  My time hadn’t improved but the attendance at parkrun had.


Your perception is shaped by reality.

What reality looks like depends on, how much of it ,and how clearly, you can see it.

When only committed runners took part in races, I perceived myself as a poor runner.

When races opened up to the general population, I began to perceive myself as a decent runner.

When parkrun began in Poole the majority were committed runners and my stock dropped again.

When parkrun grew, I once again began to see how far I’d come. Sometimes the evidence of your eyes and senses can fool or mislead you.

Short sprint – Judging

Half a lifetime ago I ran my first half marathon. I was still young, in my twenties, with a lot of growing up to do. I had many psychological issues that I hadn’t even begun to start unravelling. That day was a landmark in my life, firstly because it was the first half marathon I ever did and secondly because I had a psychological breakthrough while running it.

The route took me around Portsmouth and Southsea, near where the Great South Run is held these days. Somewhere around the 8-9 mile mark I noticed an older woman ahead of me. I estimated she was probably somewhere around fifty but she may have been forties or sixties for all I knew; when you’re young anybody over thirty looks old and you’ve got no concept of age. However old she was, she was ahead of me. There were only ten to twenty metres between us and for the next couple of miles I set my mind to catching up with her. Except I couldn’t. I never got any closer but she never got further away. I just trailed round in her wake as the miles ticked by in the back streets of Southsea.

My anger and indignation at being beaten by this woman was summed in a question – “How can this old, weak woman be ahead of tall, fit, athletic twenty-something me?”. Her being ahead made no sense to how I conceived the world, my place in it or what is right and just.

Then I had the landmark thought.

“I don’t know anything about this woman. For all I know she may have been Olympic champion twenty years ago and been training hard throughout her life. She may be on the downside of her running career and have a pedigree that far outstrips my own.”

The more I thought about it, and this is the great thing about distance running – you’ve got plenty of time for thinking, the more I realised I knew nothing about who she was, where she’d been and therefore why she should, or shouldn’t, be ahead of me. Simply put, I had no justification for believing I should be faster other than my own arrogance and prejudices of what older people, maybe specifically women, are capable of. I was judging on appearances.

With that realisation about the darkness of my inner thinking, I stopped jumping to conclusions about other people. I started to withhold judgement until I knew more. That became my default mode, refuse to make a judgement until I know more about situations or expectations. Always ask more questions, find out more information and when pushed for a conclusion, include a caveat along the lines of “to the best of my knowledge at this time”!


Now this “Don’t judge a book by its cover” approach may seem a little sanctimonious but there was a hidden benefit that I began to see in the following months.

When I stopped judging other people, I stopped judging myself.

By doing that, I opened up new vistas for living. No longer was I tied to my ill-conceived, ready-formed judgements about who I was. Now instead I was free to change and evolve whenever new ideas and information became available. I could incorporate better ways of living and being, without jeopardising my self-image because I no longer had one set in stone.

Short sprint – Do it for yourself

When I was twenty-two the gym I went to held monthly challenges. These rotated around the cardio equipment with one month being who could run the most miles, the next being to climb the highest on the versa climber, the the stationary bike, the stepper and so on. Typically the same people won the challenges because they were willing to get in the gym every day and train. I’m certain there was one woman who turned up twice a day to ensure she won the stepper challenge. I often didn’t participate because I wasn’t committed enough and I wasn’t into cardio for cardio’s sake.

The October challenge was to row as far as you could over the month. As I enjoyed the rowing machine and felt I was quite good on it, I gave the challenge a go. This was in the days before the Concept2 machine and there was a blocky graphic display showing your avatar rowing but the machines were technical enough to allow you to go head-to-head with someone on the other machine. I’d done this with Gary, who I played volleyball with, and there was something of a rivalry between us; so I went at the challenge full pelt; I wasn’t going to let him beat me. Fortunately the challenge rules limited you to fifteen minutes rowing each day on the six days of the week the gym was open, so it couldn’t get out of hand.

I suppose the aim of the challenges was to give people a reason or motivation to come to the gym. It was early gamification of the sort you see on Strava every month now. Badges for running 5K, 10K, a half marathon, cycling, swimming or whatever every month. These Strava challenges are participatory and while there is a leaderboard it’s about doing it for yourself rather than beating other people.

But back in the day I was interested in beating Gary, if not winning the challenge, so I made sure of going to the gym every day to max out my rowing allowance. All-out, hard effort for fifteen minutes to log as much distance as I could in my quest to be the best and beat Gary. I’d probably then go off and lift some weights and play volleyball or basketball.

I lasted two weeks before I fell sick. It was so bad I went home from work on Thursday lunchtime, took the Friday off work and stayed in bed all weekend to recover. I was back at work on the Monday but I’d learned a lesson about overdoing things. I often say I’m never ill and the Friday was the only day I took off in eight years working there.


The real consequences of that lesson came a couple of weeks later. November rolled around and the gym staff were looking for people to sign up for the next challenge. I declined. I realised I’d made myself ill from a meaningless challenge. My ego took part in the challenges because I wanted to be part of the gym but more so because I wanted to be at, or near, the top of the leaderboard. There was no reward, only bragging rights to be a big fish in a little pond. More so I realised the challenge was the gym staff’s thing not mine. They were signing up people to try and keep people motivated and have as many names as possible taking part to make it an interesting competition but so what? Those were their goals not mine. My goals lay in a different place, in particular on the volleyball court and staying fit and healthy enough to keep training, playing and improving at that.

I never signed up for another challenge again.

It’s all about hard work?

I grew up believing in hard work. I was doing a Sunday paper round from age 11, a morning one at 13, I had a part-time job at Broadstone Sports Centre at 15 and my mum told me that if I ran out of work, I should always ask for more! After the Sports Centre I did a year at Tesco on Fruit & Veg, where I believe Brian and Dave, the managers, considered me hardworking enough to entrust one side of an aisle to me while three did the other.

When it came to playing sport, I brought the same workhorse mentality and desire to do everything I could. That stood me in good stead when I played a solo sport like squash where I’d run myself into the ground, but it could be less positive playing team sports where you have to have the discipline to sometimes do nothing more than allow your teammates to do their job.

Nonetheless when playing I would squeeze every ounce of effort out of my body. Running on and off-court to get lost balls, chasing after opponents who’d broken away for one-on-one opportunities in football, diving after every volleyball that came in my direction, man-marking opponents and jumping to block every basketball shot. Playing volleyball I picked up an array of minor injuries which included jumping into the post while trying to hit an errant set, running full speed into a crash barrier at an outdoor summer tournament trying to reach a ball that had caromed ten yards off-court, and repeatedly diving on sports hall floors to which my hip still bears the scar of testimony. Whenever I trained or played, I would always walk off court dripping with sweat. My effort was as good as you could ask for, even if my performance wasn’t what I hoped for.

When I became a runner, I brought this wholehearted approach with me. I charged off down the road at full speed from the beginning of runs. If I reached a hill it was maximum effort up it. I wanted to get faster and ended up gasping for breath for however long I was running. The only exception was on long runs when, knowing I would be out for two or three hours, I tried to ration my effort. But at the end of it all my legs would still be tired and lacking energy. This approached lasted with me until 2011 when I started learning how to train. Even since, as I learned about the benefits of high mileage, I’ve been willing to put in sixty mile weeks despite relatively mediocre race performances.

What I now realise is that, for me, all that hard work was a mistake.


Having read the biographies of Ron Hill, Derek Clayton and Steve Jones, it’s easy to conclude miles make champions. The overriding message that comes from each of them is how hard they trained. Ex-marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe is another who talks about training hard.

Steve Jones was the world record holder in both the marathon (2:08:05 – Chicago 1984) and half marathon (1:01:14 – Birmingham 1985). He was the pre-eminent marathoner of the mid-1980s with two wins in Chicago, one at London, another at New York. He talks about how he never wore a watch or heart-rate monitor, how he didn’t think about his diet but focuses on putting in hard work to be able to run hard from start to finish.

Derek Clayton ran 150 miles per week on his way to becoming the world record holder for the marathon during the 1970s. Ron Hill ran as much as 130 mpw when he was running world class times similar to Derek. Paula Radcliffe’s success and notoriety came when she moved up to the marathon distance and set incredible world records that lasted for over a decade. Like Steve Jones, Paula liked to race from the front and go as hard as her body would allow.

Each of them credit their running success to hard work.


But I believe there’s a catch to this. The marathon is at one extreme event of the running spectrum. If you’re interested in running the longest distance in the fastest time then working hard to convert all your muscle fibres to become more efficient at fat burning and aerobic metabolism is a good way forward. Forcing yourself through long, hard training runs to handle the pain of running for over two hours, while feeling depleted, is going to make a difference.

For all their talk of success through hard work, none of these world class marathoners was as successful at shorter distances. Steve Jones was a 5,000m – 10,000m specialist before he took up the marathon. His results in the 10,000m major championships are less prolific. No world record, 12th place at 1983 Helsinki World Championships, 8th place in 1984’s Los Angeles Olympics and a bronze in the 1986 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games.

Paula’s track career resulted in a single 10,000m silver medal at the Seville World Championships in 1999. Ron Hill placed 18th and 7th in the 10,000m at the 1964 and 1968 Olympics. Derek Clayton never tried shorter distances once he realised the marathon was where his talent lay.


I’m trying to highlight that while these runners tell you how hard they worked to achieve their notable successes, what goes unsaid is how all that hard work wasn’t any use in shorter distance races and it’s a lesson I believe we can all learn from.

A key part of training is to figure out where your own strengths and weakness lie with regards to your physiology. It’s something a coach should be doing as they get to know your running. Some people are built for speed, others built for endurance. The more you’re built for speed, the fewer miles you need to run in training whatever the event. This was the lesson I never understood until recently. Even two years ago, I was running sixty miles per week to achieve the same 21-22 minute parkruns I was running ten years ago on only ten miles per week. Yet ten years ago when I upped my mileage from ten to thirty I began to run faster times so there’s a paradoxical element to it. Mileage helps when it’s well-aimed.

Finding the sweet spot between speed and mileage is the key to running success. If you’re a complete beginner, it is obvious you only need to do a small amount of exercise to start getting fitter and faster – one mile per day might be enough. If you’re competing at the Olympics, it takes many miles of training each week simply to maintain your fitness before you squeeze out more. You have to find the sweet spot that is right for your level.