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.