Given I already have a strong aerobic system, I didn’t feel any particular need to give Wim Hof Method (WHM) a go with the cold showers. Yet as I read I began to wonder whether his method would be able to help me with the cold hands I’ve suffered from my entire life. While I’ve never been officially diagnosed I probably have Raynaud Syndrome where blood flow to the hands is non-existent in cold weather so they become like ice blocks. When the blood returns, it’s incredibly painful to the point where I’m on the verge of crying !!
I can remember it happening in the winter of 1978 when I came in after playing in deep snow in our back garden and 7-year-old me cried as my hands warmed back up because I’d put them straight on the radiator. It happened a decade or so ago, when I played golf on a January day and my hands were so frozen by the end of the second hole I couldn’t feel the golf club. In recent years, I’ve been caught on unseasonably cold autumn runs where I didn’t wear gloves and arrived home barely able to get the key in the doorlock, let alone turn it.
So I was wondering if I should email Wim and ask him about whether his method could help an otherwise very healthy me. Then, as I turned to page 34, I read Wim Hof Method Experiment #1 –“Ice-water bath for warmer hands and feet” detailing a protocol to kickstart the vascular system by putting hands in ice-cold water for two minutes.
Warming cold hands
Initially I followed Wim’s protocol by filling my bathroom basin with cold water and putting an icepack in it. Ideally the mix would have been two-thirds cold water, one-third ice but I simply don’t have access to enough ice to do this every day. So the water may have been a touch warmer than Wim would like but I plunged my hands in for five minutes each day. It never felt too bad but it became something of a hassle to stand, bent over the sink for five minutes so I changed tack after four days.
I decided I would simply hold the icepack pressed between my hands while sat on the sofa. Each day at about fifteen seconds, the cold of the ice would begin to seep into my palms and start to hurt. By around a minute the pain would seem almost unbearable and the pain spreading through my wrists down into my forearms. Initially it took the better part of two minutes for the pain to subside and then the remainder of the five minute period would be okay.
Wim Hof says that what happens is the body has to adapt to the sudden cold and the microscopic blood vessels have to open up to allow blood to flow to them and warm the hands. I also noticed I was getting some discomfort across my chest during this part of the process and wondered if it would have any effect on my heart-rate. I gave it a try while wearing my heart-rate monitor on one occasion and I’m not sure it showed anything significant. My heart-rate was resting at 40 as I began and dropped to 32 by the time I’d ended. Later when I was sat there, with the icepack now back in the freezer, my resting heart-rate was again down at the 31-32 level, so I don’t think there was any difference.
By the end of the first week of holding the icepack I was noticing the time for my hands to respond and the ‘unbearable’ pain to go diminishing until it only last a minute. By the tenth day, I was no longer finding the ice difficult to hold at any stage. I noticed my hands were much redder afterwards (a sign of the bloodflow to them) and despite feeling externally very cold when I put my hand to my face or on my thighs, I no longer seemed to mind the cold.
At the start of week three – fifteenth day from when I started the initial basin immersions – I found, as I was putting the icepack away, that a large splinter of ice dropped off the freezer compartment and split into two. Initially I threw it in the kitchen sink but then decided to try a new experiment. I picked up an ice sliver in each hand wondering whether I could melt them. Certainly they began to drip but it wasn’t a rapid melting and after three minutes, I’d had enough. I could have held them for longer but I was beginning to feel the ice affecting the skin. There wasn’t much mental pain, just some discomfort. After dropping the ice, it was noticeable my hands were very cold. I put my left hand on my other forearm just below the elbow and it was noticeable how much heat it was giving off. Yet despite the externally cold temperature caused by holding the ice, my hands didn’t feel uncomfortable. They were definitely cold but I wasn’t in the sort of pain I’d experienced all those years ago on autumn and winter days.
Five weeks on from starting, holding the icepack is barely noticeable and I’ve started applying it to the backs of my hands and forearms. There’s been a small amount of discomfort and change but I feel I’ve adapted quickly.
So, all was looking good until this past weekend (mid-September). We had our first slightly more chilly mornings and I can’t say it was encouraging for my hands. On both Saturday and Sunday I ran without gloves and, on the latter, the fingers of my right hand were feeling numb at the end of the run. It wasn’t excruciating but then it wasn’t an overly cold day. I’ll stick with the daily icepack holding and see whether I can effect a difference by the time the real winter arrives.
Warning – if you decide to try this, don’t force it. You always need to go a little beyond your comfort zone but it doesn’t have to put you in the hole. Your body will learn to adapt and so what if it takes two weeks instead of ten days. The important thing is to stay consistent and get there in the end.
Horse stance is a pose where you squat down with feet out wide. Wim Hof set a world record by being able to hold this pose for three hours.
On the first day I tried it, my legs were beginning to shake after a minute and at 1min30 I quit. The next day I repeated it and then on day three, I reached 1min45. Day four was two minutes; day five was 2min15 and on day seven – only a week in, I reached three minutes. I was surprised how quickly I had been able to double my endurance on this.
It’s not a completely unfamiliar pose to me as when I played volleyball many years ago, I would spend a lot of time squatting low in the backcourt hoping to dig and recover opponent’s hits. But playing volleyball was a long time ago so I doubt I have any residual strength from that.
It also reminded me of the couple of years where I did yoga regularly. Many stances you just hold with a bent knee or bearing your weight. These never seemed difficult then and because I only went once per week, the body adapted without me realising. Yet I recall there were other members of the class who would struggle which I believe highlights Hof’s point about needing to stay healthy for low exertion.
Hof’s explanation for this ability to hold a pose longer each time is because the body becomes able to remove the lactic acid. Lactic acid (or more precisely lactate) has always been blamed for making the legs of runners heavy and while this isn’t strictly true, it’s a convention that everybody agrees to use. As much as I dislike being inaccurate, I will stand by convention for the rest of this post.
The following weeks of my trial saw further rapid improvement – week 2 out to five minutes and week 3 reached six minutes. This was the longest pose I held and it was notable that while my legs had begun to feel discomfort at three minutes, I was able to hold it longer. Yet on day 1, I would have struggled to go longer than the minute and a half I managed. I have come to learn over the last few years is that there is a difference between when the body simply cannot go any longer due to the lactate build-up versus not being willing to stand some discomfort and push through.
What struck me about how quickly I progressed is that it’s very much what we see with new runners. Every untrained runner has untapped capacity in their slow-twitch muscle. If you use these they quickly begin to contribute. To go longer and faster, once you have reached the limit, such as when I reached five to six minutes in horse stance, needs dedicated training. That’s why runners do interval training – to be able to accumulate more time overall at the point of difficulty. Over time, the intervals begin to help the body adapt to producing less lactic acid which later enables them to move up to the next level and race faster. But that untapped capacity of the slow-twitch muscle is low hanging fruit waiting to be picked by everybody for their health.
Since reaching the six minute mark I backed off on horse stance and generally hold the pose for two to three minutes per day. While it’s good to see progress, it also began to feel time consuming, almost boring to clockwatch if I’m honest. I have no particular reason to improve at this exercise and, with running being my priority, I feel pushing to hold the stance longer may detract from the important workouts when I need my body to be fresh and ready to push.
I’ve enjoyed trying these two simple Wim Hof Method experiments. I will certainly stay with the cold hands ice training into the winter as it has huge potential benefits to me. The horse stance has less obvious benefits and while I will probably continue to do it in the future, I suspect it will fall by the wayside when I have a busy week or few days and be forgotten.
Here we are in July with an array of sports to choose from. Football’s European Championships, Wimbledon, the Olympics starting on the 23rd and three weeks of the Tour de France. It’s only in recent years I’ve got into watching the Tour which is mostly a procession through beautiful French countryside until a final sprint for the line in the last kilometre of a 150-250km race. Occasionally they throw in a short time trial of 30km and of course there are the gruelling climbs of the mountain stages in the Pyrenees and Alps.
With ITV having over four hours live coverage to get through, the adverts are frequently interrupted by some excellent commentary by Ned Boulting and David Millar. They’re joined from time to time by Chris Boardman, who won gold at the Barcelona Olympics at a time when British cycling wasn’t that good. Nicknamed “The Professor” because he’s studied the details, Boardman brings great technical analysis to any broadcast discussing the build of bikes, aerodynamics, streamlined skinsuits, nutrition and tactics among other things. While I’m never going to be a cyclist, I enjoy listening and learning what I can from watching the Tour.
One of the things I picked up last year was that “fat burns in the light of a carbohydrate flame”. This is a saying which relates to needing some carbohydrates ingested to kickstart the process of fat-burning. Specifically Boardman stated riders will eat 20g of carbohydrate before going out on an early morning ride otherwise they’re burning through their glycogen stores. Certainly I’ve always found my heart-rate is lower (which suggests better fat-burning) after I’ve had breakfast.
I tried experimenting with eating two digestive biscuits before setting out on my long runs. I’d put two on my bedside table ready for the morning then, on waking I’d immediately eat them before getting up, getting my kit on and going straight out for my run. I never saw any notable difference when I did this so I’ve returned to running fasted but having a decent breakfast definitely helps on my workout or race days.
If you want to try it the information about grams of carbohydrates is usually there on the side of the box or packet so take a look. A couple of Weetabix is my go-to breakfast. Not too heavy and the milk helps with hydration.
The other thing I learned is that even when the Tour schedules a rest day, which are the two Mondays in this year’s three week schedule, the riders still go out on it for a two-hour ride. I could barely believe this when I first heard it. After all when you consider the riders are riding hard for the better part of 3,500km (2,200 miles), you’d think they’d jump at the chance of a day off. But, without it, I suppose they’d be almost forty-eight hours without riding.
A little closer inspection of riders’ data shows their rest day ‘recovery rides’ tend to be closer to an hour, maybe stretching out towards ninety minutes. On tour days they’re riding at an average of 40km/h with an average power of over 300W (with the ability to sprint at over 1000W); whereas a recovery day is closer to 25km/h with only 90-130W of effort being put in. It really is an exercise in keeping the legs turning over, flushing out any waste products and providing stimulus for hormonal and nutrient delivery. Unlike runners where the body’s muscular-skeletal system takes a pounding with each step, it’s much easier to cycle for over an hour without any detrimental effect. Nonetheless runners can still use recovery runs as a way to trigger recovery as well as maintain lower aerobic fitness.
Running 10Ks, half marathons and marathons in the 1990s my attempts to race faster were limited. I’d enter a race at one or two months’ notice believing all I had to do was get fit enough to cover the distance and rely on the speed I’d built up from playing other sports and some shorter runs. I never thought about it any more deeply than that. There was no connection or systematic way to string together training sessions, and the biggest downfall was that I never trained regularly for longer than a few months. Other sports or interests would drop into my life, running would stop until the next lull gave me the impetus to enter another race and start training again.
My first systematic attempt to race faster wasn’t in running, it came on the Indoor Rower, which I wrote about in detail here, when I tried to improve my 2,000m time. I suppose because rowing isn’t something you do naturally like running, I felt I needed to research how to improve at it. My research was done, after a lunchtime at the gym, over sandwiches on my return to the office, accessing the infant “World Wide Web”. It was so young, Google wasn’t even the search engine of choice then; I used Yahoo!, Alta Vista, Ask Jeeves and a meta-engine called Dogpile. I was lucky, working in an IT department, to have a fast internet connection and a management that didn’t mind how long our lunch hours were, because they were usually off playing football, squash or at the pub on a Friday!
Another stroke of luck was to stumble across Stephen Seiler’s MAPP website. He was a university researcher with a Masters thesis about rats running on treadmills and their response to exercise. But he was also a rower interested in applying his knowledge of exercise physiology to his sport. I lapped up the information on his website and began to follow his “Waves of Change” system of building fitness by rowing hard intervals to push my body to get faster. Although this post is going to refer to rowing often, stick with it because it’s very relevant to running as you’ll come to see.
Another of my internet searches turned up an interview with Sir Steve Redgrave which left me puzzled for years afterwards. Unfortunately I’ve never been able to relocate this piece and would love to reread it, to view it with fresh eyes.
To the younger generations, I suspect Redgrave is now unknown or simply a footnote in history. But growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, watching the Olympics, he was one of Britain’s few reliable gold medal prospects. Golds were rare in those days, nowhere near the twenty-seven won in Rio. In fact, twenty-seven is how many golds Great Britain totalled in the five Olympics Redgrave participated in, and he won 18% of them! Five consecutive Olympic gold medals that began in Los Angeles (1984) in the men’s coxed fours then continued in the coxless pairs in Seoul (1988) and Barcelona (1992). In Atlanta (1996) he and Matthew Pinsent claimed Britain’s solitary gold medal and then it was onto Sydney where at age thirty-eight, Redgrave claimed his final gold as part of the coxless fours. Over a similar period, Redgrave won another nine World Championship gold medals as well as silvers and bronzes. He was undoubtedly our premier Olympian to that moment and, as the pre-eminent British rower, you can understand why I felt any advice I could glean from an interview with him would be worthwhile knowledge.
The interview appeared after he won his 5th Olympic gold medal and Redgrave talked about how, after meeting Jürgen Gröbler for the first time in 1991-92, his training changed because of it. Gröbler had moved to England when his native East Germany disintegrated with the fall of Communism and, with him, he brought knowledge from the nation’s coaching programmes. The East Germans were so dominant that, even now, thirty years after ceasing to exist, they still lead the rowing World Championship medal table with ninety-four golds to second place Italy’s eighty-five. While some of that success is explained by a state doping programme, the methods the East Germans used were also significantly different to how Redgrave was training.
From what I can glean a typical season’s training for Redgrave in the 1980s was rowing 20-40 min fast efforts two or three times each week, along with hard intervals every spring and summer throughout the racing season. Everything was geared to pushing to get faster, the runner’s equivalent of Tempo runs and Speedwork. But Gröbler had Redgrave rowing the majority of his training at very low stroke rates which felt like he was barely putting in any effort. This was as low as 14-18 strokes per minute which is significantly less than the 40-50 he might be reaching during a race. There are many runners who baulk at a similar concept of easy running because they believe you have to train fast to race fast.
Redgrave, himself, was sceptical about this method, but he was also intelligent enough to realise he needed to commit to the training if he was going to make a fair judgement of its effectiveness. The following March, after a winter of low stroke rate steady rowing, he attended the Thames “Head of the River” race which, by his own admission, he’d never done well in. Gröbler told him to start easy before turning on the power. Long story short, Redgrave won and was sold on the training. He stated that he and his crewmates followed Gröbler’s methods from then on.
So to recap, up to this point, Redgrave’s training in the 1980s, when he won Olympic golds and World Championships, had been training hard intervals each year to reach top form then dropping back over the following winter before building up again the following year. With Gröbler he did hours of slow training and gradually improved year-on-year and still won Olympic golds in the 1990s.
This was the itch I couldn’t scratch for years – how could rowing hard intervals in the 1980s lead to success but a gradual build in the 1990s also lead to gold medals? Surely there’s only one true method to success with coaches/athletes using variations on it. How could two significantly different methods be effective at winning gold medals throughout Redgrave’s career?
In subsequent years I would come across articles on running which talked about building endurance through slower training to get faster. Yet whenever I tried it, I could never get the huge benefits being promised. But the literature on endurance training was so prevalent, I felt I was missing something. I understood it was important but at the back of my mind there was always the paradox of Redgrave winning through two seemingly opposite methods.
Stephen Seiler’s MAPP website even made reference to this question on a page called “Understanding Intervals” where he posed the question “Which is better, Interval training or Steady-state training?” In it he firstly explains how doing interval work is effective at getting more work done. For example, you’ll be able to run 8x200m in a faster time than you can run a single mile. But having established interval training allows you to do more work at faster paces, he tells the story of how East German rowers were training with slow, steady rowing throughout the 1980s and winning championships. He tells of how Kenyan distance runners do vast amounts of their training at slower paces. So once again, everything pointed to the best endurance athletes doing massive amounts of steady state training to be fast. And yet whenever I tried training slow, I couldn’t get it to work for me even though all the books and articles seemed to suggest it was the route to success. Meanwhile there are numerous articles telling you of the benefits of running hills and speedwork. Very confusing to try and figure out how the two things fit together.
In the last few years, I’ve finally been able to resolve this paradox of how Redgrave was able to win two Olympics with one method and then three more with another. It turns out I wasn’t looking or thinking about what his event entailed. The typical 2,000m rowing race lasts under six minutes for an elite man, it’s the equivalent of a middle-distance running race, somewhere between the mile and 3,000m. When Roger Bannister became the first man to break four minutes for the mile he did it with twice weekly interval sessions where he ran ten laps of the athletic track during his lunch break and only totalled fifteen miles each week. Basically this is the nature of events that last under eight minutes, it’s possible to reach very good times off a relatively low volume of training and Bannister’s training is how Redgrave trained in the 1980s.
But this training is outdated, I doubt it would be possible to be a world class miler today off the low volume Bannister ran. The decade after he broke the four minute mile in 1953, Arthur Lydiard’s runners began to win the Olympics in the 800m and mile by running a hundred miles per week. This was where the East German rowers learned about the benefits of Steady State training and why Jürgen Gröbler converted Redgrave to this type of training in the 1990s.
The change in method also explains Redgrave’s success in the Head of the River race. This race lasts between 15-20 minutes and is much closer to the demands of a parkrun for faster runners. Redgrave’s previous lack of success in this race is because hard intervals are only one piece of the training required for longer events. He needed to build a base of training to support his speed, so he converted some of his speed into endurance to be able to last three times longer in the Head of the River race. That’s what Gröbler’s Steady State training gave him, more endurance.
But this still doesn’t fully answer the question of how you can win off both types of training. What I missed (or more likely wasn’t explained) about the gradual build-up method is that, as Redgrave got nearer to the championships, he would still go back to rowing hard intervals to ensure he peaked at medal time. He was essentially still winning with hard intervals but there was now no dropping back the following winter because he was building an endurance base. The big advantage of this base is it allows you to recover quicker between interval sessions and train harder during them. If Redgrave had to row through rounds of qualifying and repechages then he was better able to withstand their stresses and strains.
The middle distance events are such that they’re about finding a balance between sprint speed and longer distance endurance. You can come at it from either direction. Bannister came at the mile from the speed end and relied on his endurance to develop over the course of his running career and tempo runs. The Lydiard approach was to come at it from the endurance end and then perk things up with intervals to get enough speed into the legs for competitive racing. As I say, it’s the middle ground of events – you’d never train for sprints through endurance, you never train for the marathon through pure speedwork. You have to train at both ends of the spectrum for middle distance.
BONUS FACTS – One final bonus from my rowing reading. Redgrave mentioned he occasionally did runs along the river towpath. He stated he’d run ten miles in an hour and a half-marathon in 1hr30! Even more impressively his Sydney foursome partner James Cracknell, who is 6’4” and 15 stone, ran the 2017 London Marathon in 2hr43 at age 45. Nothing is impossible if you know how to train properly.
Something different today. Usually I write about running but I’m going to looking back to one of the first sports I played seriously – thirty years ago in 1991 – it was squash. I have no recollection of the specific moment I decided to try it or why. Working at Chase Manhattan Bank, squash was a popular sport and there were two courts onsite with a competitive league and an annual knockout cup. My boss, Jon, was one of the best players in the bank. Nigel, his boss, was also very good. As I recall, Matt, Rick, Gareth and Alan all played, as did Pete and Greg, two Aussie contractors. I think JohnnyG may have played but Benardette didn’t and neither did SteveS. I can’t imagine Bernard, Charles or SteveT playing and certainly myself and Danny, the new kids on the block, didn’t. Quiet Nigel may have played but he was so quiet, he never uttered a word in his six months of being in our department so I never found out! But when you look at it, half our department did and I suspect it’s that which led me to start playing.
If you’ve never played squash, or quite possibly in this day and age even seen it being played; I’ll give a recap. During the 70s and 80s it was very popular with every sports centre having courts and leagues. It was something of a corporate sport, played by middle class office workers, yet by the late 1990s it was dying out. Certainly that’s what happened at Chase. The league had been very popular when the bank first came to Bournemouth in 1986, but was all but gone by 1994-95ish. When I started there, you’d always hear a ball echoing around the court as you walked over to lunch, or to the onsite bar at 5:15pm. But slowly the distinctive sounds faded away and often the courts would stand empty in darkness.
Eventually as the bank’s workforce expanded, office space became a premium and the courts were converted. That’s similar to what happened to many of the local courts – Littledown Sports Centre turned their courts into part of the fitness studio, the Lanz Club in Boscombe got knocked down and rebuilt as flats, the South Dorset Squash Club on Ringwood Road is now a Co-op supermarket. When I worked at Broadstone Sports Centre there were two courts but these were converted into additional changing rooms and a soft play area when the swimming pool was built circa 2000. There are still courts around – Haymoor in Canford Heath, Ferndown Sports Centre, Two Riversmeet in Christchurch but they are few and far between. Apparently there’s a decent size league in Dorset of 400+ players but that’s next-to-nothing when you consider our local parkruns attract that many runners every Saturday.
Walking onto a squash court always had a special feel. You walked through the doorway into a cavernous white room with high, white-washed walls. At least they were originally white but now covered by hundreds of marks from squash balls. The room would echo, the lights needed to be bright and on closing the door, the handle dropped flat making for a smooth surface. If you turned round and looked up there was a balcony for spectators to look down on you. Above and behind you, people could sneak a look over and you’d never know they were watching. The cold, echoing, emptiness with just the two of you made it feel like a gladiatorial contest. The only noises were the grunt of long rallies, the squelching and braking of feet in motion and the ball ricocheting off the walls.
The ball was a small, black sphere of hollow rubber. Flexible once warm, it could reach speeds of well over 100km/hour. Some balls had a yellow dot, others a red one, each of which indicated a different speed. You’d have to agree with your opponent which ball to use – a slower one being more advanced because it didn’t bounce as much. I quickly found any decent opponent would snort contemptuously if I even considered offering up the lesser ball. Once agreed you then had to warm the damn thing up. Usually that involved hammering it repeatedly against the front wall, which was easy for people like Jon or Nigel who had the skills, but for a beginner like myself it simply displayed my ineptitude. Two or three hits then the ball would skew out of control and I’d have to scramble over and pick it up. A feeling of embarrassment towards my opponent and a shame that I was irritating or holding them when they wanted to get warm. In winter the courts would be chillingly cold which made warming the ball up even harder. There was a shortcut available though, rolling it vigorously back and forth under your shoe. Occasionally in matches the ball would split or, more likely, get lost in the rafters. When that happened you had to suspend play and warm up another ball. Another opportunity to display ineptitude.
Being the first individual sport I’d played, I now realise I felt a sense of responsibility not to show myself up with the wrong etiquette, so I’d go through the motions of warmups that I didn’t know or understand. All my routines were copied from the players I met over the following months. If someone jogged around the edges of court or up and down in the corridor then I did that. If they swished their racket and did some hip looseners or shoulder swings then I did them too. Mostly I stood there thinking “Can we just get on and play?”.
Games were, of course, preceded by the need to decide who would serve first. No flip of a coin, play for service or “Which hand is the ball in?” deciders as some sports do. The tradition of squash was to spin a racket on its head having identified a logo on each side of the racket to represent each player. One of my few moments of one-upmanship was having a racket that had “My Serve”, “Your Serve” printed on it precisely for this situation. Opponents would begin to ask whether I wanted the Slazenger logo or blank side of their racket, and I’d proudly interject and show them the “My Serve” / “Your Serve” markings. Of course there’s always one person who doesn’t get it and I recall showing this to an opponent who then said he wanted to take the “My Serve”! Didn’t seem to understand the implied ownership of my racket, my serve.
A difficulty of squash is that it’s not a sport where the ball easily goes out of bounds, it usually stays in court until it can’t be returned. Out of bounds happens if you hit it upwards enough, or aim too low at the front wall thereby hitting the bottom 18-inches of the metal “tin”, but most of the time you’re playing until one of you is unable to return the ball before it’s bounced twice. The front wall is theoretically unmissable, it’s 20 feet wide stretching up to 15 feet. You can play the ball off the side walls before or after hitting the front wall. It can rebound off the back wall if it goes deep enough. This is what begins to make squash so difficult for a beginner, it’s a game of angles and you have to be able to read the flight of the ball, predict where it’s going and get into position for your next shot.
Skilled players have an ability to keep rallies going for an average of 15-20 seconds, but as a beginner mine were often over before I’d even started. My opponent would serve, I’d lunge to volley the ball in mid-flight and misjudge it. Even then, I still had the chance to scrabble around and try to play it before the second bounce. But I rarely had the technical skill to play a good shot. Good players knew how to exploit my weaknesses. They’d play the ball off the front wall to die in the back corner. They’d play every shot in a rally to my backhand which was technically harder to co-ordinate returns from. They’d play drop shots after pushing me deeper and deeper to the back of court.
I dived in enthusiastically, playing lunchtimes and evenings – whenever I could get a court booking and find an opponent. With the games popularity, that might mean arriving at 7am for a pre-breakfast game or waiting until 2pm for a late lunch – the courts were well-used at peak times. With regular play, my understanding of the game grew gradually. I no longer lunged wildly at serves which I should have waited to bounce. I began to learn the footwork and technique for a backhand. Jon taught me how to face into the back corner so that, with a flick of the wrist I could simply sweep a shot back down the line to hit the front wall, then watch it loop back to land in the same corner where my opponent had just tried to put me under pressure. What happens as you learn to play a sport is you develop technically, tactically and mentally. Being a bad player means you physically develop your speed and strength only as quickly as you can learn to play the game well.
One of the key tactics is to control the “T” – the centre of the court – from there you can reach the rest of court easily. Every shot you play is trying to force your opponent off the “T” so you can take it over. Of course they have the same aim. If you watch good players, you’ll see there’s a dance going on as one waltzes off the “T”, the other moves onto it only to vacate it moments later and be replaced by their opponent again. As a beginner there was no such dance going on. My opponent would stand on the “T” and I would constantly be scrambling around them to reach balls at full stretch, just about able to return them. My opponent would take two or three strides from the “T” and play the ball to some corner of court where I wasn’t, leaving me to take five or six desperate lunging steps to try to get the ball while my opponent would waltz back onto the “T” comfortable in the knowledge they had the game firmly under control.
So in my early days, I wasn’t very good. I’d take a couple of steps to return a serve, I’d take a few lunging steps across court to reach a ball, my opponent would kill the rally and score a point. I only needed enough fitness for a few seconds of play. That was the way it was for the first few months.
As I improved I began to make rallies last longer. I began to win more points which made games last longer and, consequently I got fitter, which in turn helped rallies to last longer. I began to understand the angles involved. Experience told me that when a ball hit this point on the front wall, it would go over there. When it hit that particular spot, it went there. I began to be able to position myself earlier for return shots and gradually my technique improved. Mentally, my shot selection improved as I learned when to play a drop shot, when to play it deep and when it was inadvisable to play them. I started playing better opponents who in turn pushed me for longer rallies, better shots, and fewer mistakes and so on. That’s the nature of the improvement, there’s nothing radical in this if you apply yourself.
The highlight moment of my squash years was taking part in the annual tournament. Maybe I played in two, but I only remember the game where I was knocked out by Mack. An experienced player, I’d guess he was around fifty; he was lean, wily, whitehaired, a talker and he was full of gamesmanship. He’d take any ‘let’ he could, slow the game down when he was losing and find ways to take breathers after long rallies. Fitness was my greatest asset, so of course I tried to run him ragged but he’d take every second he could and every break between sets to recover. Looking back, I can’t blame him.
With my boss Jon being a good player, I’d already seen and heard about the tournament before I played in it, I probably supported him in the previous years. I reckon the tournament was played over two weeks of February, in the evenings with a straight knockout. What I remember distinctly is the hubbub associated with it. The balconies overlooking the courts would be crowded with supporters and players who’d entered, especially those still in the tournament or due to play later. And like Wimbledon fortnight or the FA Cup, as you got closer to the final, the interest level increased. If you arrived late you’d be watching over the shoulder of others or trying to squeezing into the gap at the end of the row by the wall. The support generated oohs, aahs, and rounds of applause for exciting rallies. It was nothing like playing on a lunchtime when a couple of friends might watch for five minutes to fill time before they had to return to the office.
I played Mack in, what I think would have been, the third round of the tournament. The winner of the game would then play Paul who I’d become good friends with. We often played matches and he always beat me. Always. But I was fast-improving whereas he’d been playing for some years; I felt I held something back in our friendly games and that the do-or-die nature of the knockout would give me a sharper edge. I was sure I’d beat him if I could get past Mack. And if I beat Paul then I’d probably have been in the quarterfinals.
But I had to get past Mack first. And initially that didn’t seem too hard. The matches were best of five games and I easily went two-nil up running him round court with repetitive whipping forehand shots, gradually pulling him off the ‘T’ until, I’d drive an unreturnable cross-court shot to his backhand to win the rally. It was all going to plan and then as victory closed in during the third game, I tensed up and began to make mistake after mistake.
It was a classic case of choking and Mack was wily enough to just keep popping the ball up for me to smash it into the tin or mishit. It was terrible. Not just because I was losing but because I knew the whole balcony were watching me throw the match away. I’d shown them how well I could play for two games, now I was showing them how badly I handled pressure. I could hear gasps and mutterings whenever I played a bad shot. It became obvious I was going to lose the third game and then the fourth. A friend or colleague would shout down a word of encouragement but all it did was remind me that I was playing badly and now needed some kind of external support that I hadn’t needed when I was playing well. I don’t recall the details of how I came to lose the deciding fifth game, only that I went from two-nil up to losing three-two. I think Mack went on to beat Paul in the next round, it’s not etched in my memory, as it wasn’t something I wanted to be reminded of or talk about.
I don’t recall exactly when or why I stopped playing. I first touched a volleyball in the summer of 1992 and decided I wanted to get good at it. The bank also opened an onsite gym which was a bargain at £6 per month and it began to take up my lunch times and evenings. I believe that’s how I got into running and entered my first 10K. Either there were some entry forms on the reception desk when I walked in, or someone at the gym talked me into it. It was also the winter I moved out of my parents’ home and began growing up and looking after myself. Extra time from living closer to work and a need to recreate my routines saw me move away from old friends and habits.
I’d guess the gym hastened the demise of the squash league. The guys who’d enthusiastically competed five years before were getting older and gaining more family responsibilities. Hitting their thirties and forties their knees were creaking and they knew their place in the pecking order of the league. The competitive fires were probably beginning to die down as they knew who they could beat and who they couldn’t. The gym presented an exciting new, alternative for keeping fit with no dependency on finding opponents or booking courts. It could easily be fitted in around the rest of their lives.
I’m sure I played the occasional game of squash in 1993 and 1994 but volleyball became my new all-consuming passion. I started playing basketball, going to the gym, there was circuit training in the sportshall on Wednesday lunchtime and tennis lessons on Thursdays. With so many options available, squash fell by the wayside. Just the occasional game now and then.
I’ve only played three or four times since I left Chase in 1997. Each time I played I was in a terrible state the next day. I could still read the game well enough to know where the ball was going. I had the fitness to get into position to play those shots. I didn’t have the fine motor skills to play winning shots so rallies lasted much longer than when I first played. As a beginner, my fitness built up as I got better at the game, now I’d play hard for forty minutes using squash-specific muscles that weren’t used to being used. Deep lunging stretches to reach the ball in all corners of the court. I’d walk off court dripping in sweat feeling like I’d had a good workout. The next day, I’d suffer from muscle soreness that lasted two or three days. I couldn’t take those matches easy but, with decent fitness, I paid for it in the following days.
Nowadays I see the same thing happen with runners returning from injury. Having been used to running regularly for an hour or more they jump back in with a half hour test run. Invariably it’s at a decent pace because their legs are feeling fresh. What they don’t do is go for a gentle easy run to ease back in and be sure the injury has fully healed. If they were running thirty miles per week before they get injured they come straight back running five days per week and quickly back up to that sort of mileage. Then they wonder why the get injured again.
When you come back to running after an injury, you should begin with short gentle runs – possibly as short as five minutes and ideally no more than fifteen minutes. If that’s ok you might do it again the next day but you might take a rest day for extra assurance. If nothing’s causing problems you build slowly back up from there, adding five or ten minutes until you’re sure you’re injury-free. Of course it depends on how big the injury was but for anything major, I’d aim for the better part of a month to rebuild.
Likewise when I went to circuit training after a break, I never pushed it. I took the session easy knowing I’d get a decent workout and consequently I avoided the next day soreness. But I never figured out how to achieve that graduated approach when getting back into playing squash. I don’t think it’s possible. You book a court for forty minutes, you’ve got to use the time up. And you have to give your best efforts for your opponent. All you can hope is to walk away unscathed and maybe to accept you’re going to be sore for a while.
As the pictures attest I still have my squash racket and the Hi-Tec shoes I bought all those years ago. They’ve been up in the loft ever since. I thought I’d barely used the shoes as they look so clean and the soles are hardly worn. But when I looked inside, I could see the insoles had been worn around the ball of my big toe. I spent a lot of time on my toes and driving off the forefoot to get to balls quickly. The cleanliness of the shoes is no surprise because squash courts are clean and shoes don’t get dirty like running shoes would. I was obviously into Hi-Tec as my first pair of running shoes were Hi-Tec Silver Shadows which I think I bought for £25.
Picking up my racket I’d forgotten how light it is. I cocked my wrist and gave it a couple of swishes – the old three finger hold with thumb and forefinger loose came automatically. I regripped the racket a few times myself. It was one of those tasks I’d do periodically, more because I enjoyed doing it than out of necessity. I remember Jon used to have about three grips on his racket so that it was big and fat to nestle in his hand. I also remember if you ever saw him running around a football pitch he ran with one hand open and the other as if he was holding a squash racket!
My racket was made by a company called Unsquashable and the headcover has a stylish mix of fluorescent pink and black. I rarely buy things based on looks but graphite rackets were becoming more attractive than the wooden and steel ones that preceded them and I think I bought this one because it had a larger sweet spot. Unsquashable still seem to be in existence, making rackets and I recall they were connected to Jahangir Khan, who was the best player of the 1980s.
I was definitely not the best player of the 1990s and when I look back squash was simply a sport I played regularly for a couple of years before relegating it to “once in a while” as a way to connect with new acquaintances. There’s a part of me that would love to play again just to experience hitting the forehands and backhands down the line. To stand waiting for the serve and the frustration of trying to dig a ball out of the back corner. Maybe one day the opportunity will present itself and I’ll be ready to give it another go but I’m also content to leave it in the past. Squash was what I did then and life moves on. For now, I’m far too focused on my running and coaching others to become better runners.