Monday, 14 July 2014

3 big lessons from the 2014 World Cup Final

I know I promised top be back in the autumn and I just couldn't resist writing about some of the lessons that the 2014 World Cup taught us about performance in sport:

1. It takes time
Half of Germany's winning team last night played together in the victorius U21 team from Euro 2009. And even more were together in the squad that made the World Cup semi final in South Africa 4 years ago. And the pattern is repeated by the successful Spanish and Dutch teams in recent years. They came through the age group tournaments in groups and have a deep understanding of how to play together.

Much has been made of Spain being a Barca/Real composite team with Germany being essentially a Bayern/Dortmund composite and Netherlands being an Ajax/Feyenoord team. Selecting players who learnt their football in a small number of clubs re-inforces their familiarity even when the styles of those clubs are quite different. And these players also keep on improving - there is a strong desire to become ever better players backed up with a work ethic and learning mindset. Just how good Germany can be in 2 years time is frightening.

Takeout - it takes years to build a successful organisation, whether in sport or business.

2. Body language and mentality
Shortly after Germany scored the camera panned to Lionel Messi and the picture was one of resignation. His head and shoulders were down, the message he was giving off was 'we are beaten, no way back'. This may or may not be what was in his head (i'm no mind reader) but certainly that will be the signal his team mates will have picked up. We know that mind and body are so intertwined that with a physiology like that it beccomes harder to perform skills to a high level - try it yourself if in doubt.

So it was no surprise that with a minute to go and a nicely positioned free kick outside the German box Messi completely duffed it and sent the ball high over the bar. Compare that to the mentality of the Germans and Dutch earlier in the tournament - they kept going, always believing that they would get one more chance. Manchester United made a habit out of this - scoring in 'Fergie time' to win games.

Then towards the end as some German players started to get rattled by the hard Argentinian challenges Joachim Low was a picture of calm on the bench, keeping his men focused. We wouldn't like him in England - not 'passionate' enough. But just what a team needs when the pressure is building.

Takeout - Look and behave like you can and you probably will.

3. Tactical flexibility
The Dutch and the Germans showed immense tactical flexibility to exploit the weaknesses of opponents and nullify their strengths. Whether it was the Dutch with 5 at the back early on or Germany with Lahm holding in midfield in the early games then reverting to right back to provide more attacking threat the flexibility was exceptional. Indeed in the final the Germans were organised to play with Khedira in Midfield but had to adapt when Kramer had to start in his place and then changed it again when Kramer was replaced by Schürrle and Kroos dropped back. Even Argentina changed their attacking formation several times as Aguero came on, then Higuain went off. This sort of tactical flexibility in sport only comes with players who have an outstanding command of their skills and a deep trust in each other.

Takeout - whether you are driving a racing car, running a marathon or playing a World Cup Final you need to have supreme control of skills and focus on your job if you are going to have tactical flexibility that wins competitions.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Enjoy the summer of sport

The last couple of months i've been taking a break from writing here and spending a bit more time watching some great competition and innovative coaching. From local sports athletics meets to the Football World Cup and Wimbledon I have been soaking up as many fresh perspectives on human performance as possible.

In a few weeks time when the dust has settled I will start sharing a few insights that we can all apply in our daily quest to learn and perform better.

In the meantime, enjoy the rest of the summer of sport !


Wednesday, 2 April 2014

The over/under marathon workout

Last Monday I spent a fun evening with the folks over at Running Forever in Taunton showing them the over/under marathon workout. It was the last of this springs Somerset Athletics Network sponsored development events so it was good to have a mix of coaches and athletes present from the Taunton area as well as a small group who came down from Burnham.

The workout is one I first used 10 years ago and the concept was introduced to me by Renato Canova though it has been used in various guises by many coaches. The basic idea when I was doing the session was to alternate a segment of running at just faster than my Anaerobic Threshold with one at my Aerobic Threshold. These terms get used in all sorts of different ways so to be clear, for me this meant about 3.05/km and 3.30 - 3.25/km (getting faster as I adapted), so corresponding to paces that I could hold for about an hour with a lactate level of around 4mmol and 3 hours with a lactate level of around 1.5mmol respectively.

Why these efforts and what is the effect ? The faster segment burns pretty much 100% Sugars (which starts to empty the fuel tank) and produces a manageable level of lactate in the blood which is available to the muscles as fuel. The slower segment using a proportion of Fats as fuel and this is where the body can also learn to recycle the lactate. So over the course of a long session (I used to do 20km continuous) as your sugars get depleted the body has to get better at using fat and lactate as fuel.

The 'watch out for' in this session is going to fast on either segment. Too fast on the fast ones and your lactate levels will get too high and you wont be able to clear it. Too fast on the slow segment and you won't be burning a sufficient proportion of fats.

So back to last monday and we had the runners aiming to run at 10km race pace (for 40-60 min 10k runners) and then marathon pace (for 3hrs+ marathon runners). Ideally we would be a bit more specific for individual runners but without a lot of lactate testing we had to use some best guesses.

The first few efforts were a real challenge as people struggled to adjust to the right pace. We started with some 200m efforts just to get the feel for it before stretching things out to 3 minute efforts on the track. in total the group did about 40 mins of running and the progression for workouts like this is to extend the total duration before starting to bring the pace of the slower segment closer to the fast segment. Thats all a bit counter intuitive from a typical approach of running faster as you adapt !

Of course one of the additional benefits of a session like this is learning to feel the effort and the pace judgement that gives you in races. In a day and age when everyone seems to have their face stuffed into Garmin you can't overstate the benefits of learning to run mor elike a Kenyan ! 

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Winter Olympics lessons 1 - Dario Cologna and his rehab

The first week of the Winter Olympics has produced some exciting competition and challenging snow conditions. I've been lucky enough to follow the coverage on Swiss and German TV while also flicking back to the BBC for a beginners guide to sports that I know nothing about. While many of the events may bear little resemblance to track and field athletics there are some good lessons that can be applied across all sports and teh first one I'm going to write about is Dario Cologna's return from injury to win the Skiathlon and 15km 'Classic' Cross Country skiing events.

For the uninitiated Cross Country skiing, also known as Nordic skiing, has two techniques. Classic - where the skiis move in a straight line along pre-prepared parallel grooves in the snow and the basic movement resembles a slow running or bounding action (badly demonstrated by me here on the left). Freestyle - which is basically like ice skating but on skiis and takes place on a smooth loipe and is faster than classic. Both techniques use the arms to add power and hence XC skiiers have recorded some of the highest VO2 Maxes recorded - remember VO2 is a measure of the body's oxygen consumption so the skiiers use more oxygen than runners say (this also raises an interesting question about whether the limitiing factor in VO2 max development is the muscles ability to use oxygen rather then the heart/blood's ability to supply it - it would suggest that it is). And to give you a feel for the speed the men go at, the Engadin Skimarathon is won in around 1hr 20mins on good snow - so 2 minutes a kilometre or fast enough for drafting to play a part as in cycling.

In Sochi the course that has been built at the Laura centre is a tough one for several reasons. Firstly its at an altitude of just over 1400m which is just enough to feel the effectos of if you are not acclimatised. Secondly, its hilly which means athletes need more power to ski uphill and the downhills can be treacherous where speeds of 70kph are reached on narrow cross country skis which only have a front binding. And thirdly the snow has been soft which means that the skiis slide less effectively taking up more energy from the athlete and presenting a challenge for the 'waxman' who prepares the skis with the appropriate wax for the conditions.

So with the langlauf basics over lets come to Dario Cologna. 100 days before the games he badly damaged ligaments in his right ankle requiring surgery and 6 weeks in a boot to enable the recovery to take place. Unable to ski he resorted to an intensive rehab programme with a few twists - of which more later. In the first event, the Skiiathlon, Cologna was content to sit in the pack for much of the race and focus on staying clear of trouble on the downhills where his ankle was going to be severely tested on the corners. Skiathlon is simply 15km of classic followed by a ski change and then 15km of skating technique. And then with a kilometre to go he accelerated hard up the final climb (above) utlising his upper body as well as legs to create a gap over Sweden's Marcus Hellner. While Hellner was able to use his superior fitness and skating top speed on the flat to close the gap Cologna had created enough of a gap on the uphill to win the race.

So his rehab and why it may have made the winning difference. Unable to ski Cologna and his coach Guri Hetland were forced to get creative about how they trained. Ostensibly to maintain his aerobic fitness Cologna used a couple of techniques.

Firstly he used a sitting machine that was fixed to enable him to do upper body work to maintain aerobic fitness (above left) and then later as his rehab progressed he was able to get out on the snow on kneeling pair of skiis so that at least he could mimic the full upper body pushing action (below left).

What would turn out ot be most significant about this training is that I believe Cologna created a bigger training load on his upper body than his normal training would and therefore he got a bigger adaptation and ultimately more power. And it was this extra power that enabled him to gap the field on that final climb before the stadium despite his aerobic fitness in his legs probably still being slightly off where he would have liked it to be.

So what are the take outs for runners and other sports ? There are probably many and I just want to mention two of them:
1. A very big aerobic base can survive a lengthy period of rehab with just sufficient training to maintain it. For middle distance runners and soccer players this is particularly relevant when considering the type of training programme to follow. A big aerobic base will have you back competing at a higher level sooner.
2. A very intensive block of training on a part of your system that is relatively undertrained can pay big dividends. Why ? Because of the law of diminishing returns - When my Anaerobic Threshold is already at 3min/km and my vVO2max is 2min 45sec/km and i've done 60,000km of running getting even a 1% improvement requires a huge additional training load. However increasing my standing vertical jump by several % may be a much easier gain to make with a focused strength/power block of training. And this will convert into improved running performance without needing to increase my aerobic engine.