Soft body, soft surfaces

This Blog’s name ‘Running Culture’ had two sources of inspiration:

  1. the book ‘Kenyan Running: movement culture and global change’ by John Bale and Joe Sang
  2. movement teacher Ido Portal’s term for his group ‘Movement culture’

It became obvious to me that the word ‘culture’ in both the title of the book and the movement group deserved central attention because our beliefs are based on our culture and our beliefs shape our actions and thus our success in running as in other sports and different aspects of life. Fix the culture and you fix all the downstream issues.

One cultural belief taken to task by Ido Portal within the broader context of ‘movement’* are the limitations we built around ourselves and our physical development. In an interview with Daniel Vitalis, Ido Portal references a teacher who told him ‘soft body, soft surface’. I want to explore this briefly below and bring it within the context of running culture.

* Ido Portal uses the word ‘movement’ to describe his practice rather than ‘training’ or even ‘physical education’ (my own preferred term) because the focus is on ‘moving’ the body, something that can be done at any time, rather than bringing a Westernised mindset of ‘boxing set artificial movement patterns into a rigid time’. We will talk more about this dichotomy when discussing Ido Portal’s ‘Classical vs. Romantic’ training methods – both of which have a place that must be understood not as exclusive of each other but living in harmony. The issue in the West, as always, is the fitness industry gravitating towards only one side of the continuum – the one currently appearing most appetising to the market thus providing ‘people what they want, rather than giving them what they need.’

Hard surface or hard body?

Today it is the norm to train on soft surfaces such as padded gym floors or yoga mats, we spend most of our time sitting on soft chairs and car seats and our feet are enveloped into increasingly soft rubber cushions. This presents a radically different challenge to the human body than our ancestral environment and even the world of grand-fathers or great grand-fathers were luxuries were more scarce, car journeys less common, sitting around all day a rarity and sports shoes made from hard canvass soles.

Many years ago a coach called Tony Riddle confronted me with the notion that training on a harder surface forces your body to become softer – if something is uncomfortable, it forces us to find a work-around to make it more pleasurable. Ido Portal’s teacher, a practitioner of shadow yoga, considered closer to the original traditions of yoga by many, did all his classes without any yoga mats. He felt such mats limited the physical development of his students. ‘If you feel pain, perhaps you are putting weight on something that should not have weight on it.’. Certain structures of the body are better equipped to handle body-weight but the clues to develop this awareness are often robbed from us by our artificially softened environment. In this case our soft environment makes us soft in a different sense: less strong, less adaptable, less able to cope.

In our context as runners we see this in the move towards extreme cushioning of the heel. Practice jumping with a hard sole or barefoot on rigid surfaces and you very quickly adapt away from a heavy heel-landing putting to bed theories about whether it is appropriate to land heavily on the heel during high impact activity. The cushioned sole robs us of the necessary perception to understand where on the surface of the foot it is appropriate to place certain loads. Here our culture of ‘cushioning’ perverts our beliefs into believing certain physical movements are appropriate when in reality they are not. From this false belief, erroneous actions such as heavy heel-striking running patterns are born.

Another practical example is very instructional: if you move over rugged, wet and uneven terrain you will not choose to sit down for a rest – you will squat to avoid getting cut, wet, cold or sore.   Without artificial support we pick the correct movement for the scenario, we are in. The price of comfort (such as a fold-out chair) is movement degeneration and destruction of your full athletic potential. Is your comfort worth this price? Only you can answer this question.

Within our little box

The yoga mat serves as a great example not just of how we have tried to eliminate the natural variation and hardness of surfaces, we need to develop proper sense of body-weight shifting and loading, but of how modern training and fitness practices place artificial limitations on our training essentially unsuitable to the real demands of life.

Any ‘mat-based’ exercise artificially constrains itself within a generally purple rectangle. Movements that should be happening do not happen or are not explored. Our motion control footwear limits us in the same way by robbing our foot of experiencing its full range of motion. A foot without a natural ability to fall into pronation (inward roll) and bring itself back out into a supinated position (an action Gary Ward appropriately calls ‘resupination’) cannot function to its full potential. Yet many shoes will steal away this movement potential bit by bit until it is gone altogether. At this stage the runner will be more dependent than he was before on the control of the shoe. This is essentially similar to the predicament of the drug user – the more he or she takes, the more she needs to maintain the addiction and feel comfortable.

“The more support you wear, the more you will need in the future. Supportive footwear thus works by the same mechanism as drug use – the more you take, the more you need for comfort. – author”

Modern exercise routines – including our own sub-disciplines of track and road running – are very linear sports with low variability in surface variation and density. Cross-country was long the yearly anti-dote for serious runners (and remains so for many, thankfully) with the (re)-emergence of trail running, our natural locomotive transportation mode, also benefiting our current running culture. However, it must be recognised that many runners ‘step out of the mat’ and take to the trails mentally only, not physically, because when they go onto the trail they chose to wear a heavily cushioned runner*, running gaiters, water-proof socks and compression gear.

* The emergence of maximalist and super-interventionalist monstrosities such as Hoka One-One are particularly instructive of our desire to reconnect with nature ‘from behind a looking glass’. This culture also permeates the hiking community where hills are to be enjoyed from behind layers of water-proof GoreTex and gaiters. This is an expression of a modern mind longing to reconnect with the wild and unpredictable yet still too fearful and domesticated to fully shed the comfortable trappings of modernity. 

This weakens our running culture in ways many may not expect. Since I have mentioned Ido Portal several times in this article let me ‘lift’ another of his well-known quotes: ‘don’t wrap your joints in supports, wrap your joints in exercise’. And what about this one: ‘the more expensive the tools, the cheaper the mover’. This ports directly into our sport: ‘the more expensive the equipment, the less developed the runner’.

To improve our running culture, we must not seek comfort for comfort’s sake and we must step outside the artificial boundaries set by mats, shoes and coaches schooled in excessively linear training methods and explore the wild and unpredictable. Have weak ankles? Stop taping them all the time and begin to explore their full ranges in squatting, walking, jumping and running over increasingly complex terrain. Cannot control your foot pronation (‘over-pronation’)? Rehabilitate foot issues and practice exercises teaching your body how to react and move the foot out of pronation back into a supinated position. Stop seeking the easy artificial solutions and the band-aids and look for permanent cures which leave you stronger – not weaker.

 

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The 4-hour coach

 

American author Tim Ferris published the bestseller ‘The 4-hour workweek’ in 2007 as a response to the cultural institution of ‘going through the doldrums’ in a regular profession from leaving school to the days you retire. He presented the wealth of the ‘new rich’ as: mobility, time and money

I enjoyed the message of the 4-hour workweek but its message is often misunderstood in such a way that people  begin to ignore a fundamental dynamic of human relationships: value, in the form of money, flows to people who are valuable to others*. Provide value and you get rewarded in return. A person who earns money but provides little or no value to his fellow man is a parasite. Ancient societies easily dealt with such leisure-riders by simply shunning them or depriving them of their share of the days foraging and hunting (as detailed by Saltin in his seminal ‘Stone Age Economics’).

It is possible to provide more value in 4 hours than some people provide in a life-time, of course. Money is linked to value not to ‘hours worked’ and the greatest achievement of the 4-hour work-week is to put a stake through the heart of this nonsensical notion. I could sit down at my kitchen table and, let us say, invent a cure for cancer in 4 hours and few would begrudge me living off the earnings and never lifting a finger for the rest of my life.

* Let us ignore for a moment that there are ways to corrupt this dynamic and hoard wealth off scamming, fooling or misleading others.

In most cases, however, this is not what people attempt to do. They are looking for a life-style business which means ‘a regular income from few work hours, with no nagging boss and the ability to work from anywhere’. I was charmed by this notion myself but as I threw myself at ‘business-building’, I learnt a key lesson: You do not become top of any sport or industry part-time. Anyone who dominates in the world of business or sport lives and breathes their calling every hour of the day. If you want to live part-time and still earn and income you have to prepare to be mediocre and you definitely need to embrace a minimalist lifestyle as your earnings are likely to be low (as they should be – a mediocre performer has low to medium value).

I noticed this lesson because my business of choice was coaching athletes. My value to athletes comes from the depth of my knowledge and my ability to apply it complex individuals to provide them solutions. A ‘4-hour coach’ will never truly achieve the coaching ability necessary to become top-class. Human beings are too complex and the fields of knowledge a coach needs to master to numerous. It takes years of immersive practical experience to achieve any kind of competence as a coach.

Our culture has a challenge here because running and athletics as a sport does not generate the revenue for profitable careers for coaches .You cannot walk away with millions like Mourinho and Jurgen Klopp even if you are the world’s top coach. This means our education relies primarily on amateurs and they serve an important function although they are also a curiosity in the modern world. We are happy to have amateur coaches but not amateur therapists or amateur mechanics. The reason is partly convention and partly that coaching is not valued highly. This has to do with supply and demand. You do not value an episode of your favourite tv-show highly enough to pay for it if you can download it for free off a pirate-site, but you still enjoy the tv-show. Likewise, most of us value coaching but not enough to pay for it as it can be done cheaply. This is not the runners problem, it is up to the professional coaches to demonstrate their value and change this perception. The same goes for our sport in general – to get more money flowing we must create a better product and not lament that ‘soccer is more glamorous’*. To achieve this the standard among professional coaches and their ability to communicate needs to be heightened.

* I’ll explore this topic in a later post

Here we finally encounter the issue of with the ‘4-hour coach’. A perception exists, especially among office executives, that working in physical education, coaching or personal training is glamorous and a natural choice to build a ‘lifestyle business’. Nothing could be further from the truth. In order to be successful without being an expert, you need to pick a very well-known ‘fitness concept’ such as Zumba and simply be good at marketing and selling as well as a reasonably capable instructor. These instructors will not lead to innovations and revolutions in our running culture, however.

Anyone who moves into coaching runners needs to embrace it as a full-time profession. They should follow Dan Pena’s advice and do it only because they are passionate about it – only this way can you put enough time aside to practice and perfect your coaching to create the standard we need in order for the general runner to perceive professional coaches as highly valuable individuals on par with physiotherapists, mechanics, dentists, psychologists, university lecturers and other such professionals. A coach needs to hang up his attachment to being merely ‘a trainer’ and understand he is a ‘human consultant’ and a ‘physical educator’.* His or her knowledge in all the fields related to human functioning needs to be supremely well developed – deep, wide AND linked to hours and hours of practical application. Someone truly passionate about the sport he coaches will not look to ‘clock out’ at 4 hours – he will be happy to spend the majority of his hours ‘breaking the code of performance’ – because his sport is also his vocation. These are the teacher we need. The teachers who opportunistically select our sport because they believe it is a ‘fertile market’ to be milked for ‘another stream of revenue’, we need, as runners, need to show the door. It may sound discriminatory but we need ‘real running coaches for real runners’. Passionate teachers who will perfect their craft and conduct themselves to the highest professional standards. With an army of such individuals, Ireland’s running success can be turned around.

* There is also a circular cultural effect at play here. We value things more highly if we have to pay for them. If we pay for something we are more likely to use it or listen to it. Consultants have known this for a long time: by charging more they command more respect – but the caveat is that they do have to deliver the results as well. If athletes perceive coaches merely as ‘stop-watch holders’ or ‘the guy who picks up the cones’, it becomes more difficult to command the necessary position to teach effectively. 

Authors note (15th May): If you do not find this argument convincing, read a few articles online about the resurgence of German soccer and compare the amount of coaches they have in their system compared to the British system. What we have to increase is the total sum of available top-class coaching knowledge. You could write the equation this way:

Average competence of each coach available x number of available coaches = sum of coaching competence available

It is irrelevant whether the coaches are professional or amateur a coach with a ‘negative competence’ (doing more harm than good) would draw the average down. Being a professional is a fail-safe against such individuals because people who provide negative results go out of business – as they deservedly should. This ‘culling of the herd’ effect is necessary in a coaching profession.

 

Every man is a teacher

IMG_20160227_131929.jpgJoe Henderson wrote a chapter in his book ‘Run right now’ titled ‘advice to advisers’ stressing that ‘once you have learned the basics of running, you become a potential teacher, coach or adviser’.

This is part of the cultural formation of every social group whether running related or not – ‘old-timers’ show novices the ropes. We cannot have human society as we know it without this feature. Whenever you look at the runners around you, the mirror neurons in your brain ‘learn something’ from that observation. We ‘teach others’ even when we don’t want to do it. Improving running technique across the population will raise the quality of ‘unconscious teaching’ in our culture. In this article I explore the issues with ‘conscious teaching’ such as giving advice to a running friend.

From anthropological studies, we see this ‘every man is a teacher’ element at work in tribal societies where the concept of ‘elders’ remains intact. An elder, rather than being merely perceived as ‘an old person’, is a senior figure commanding respect and authority.

The more you have achieved in running or in coaching runners, the more authority you are likely to command. In this day and age, you can also achieve this authority by shouting higher through various media and by creating a perception of success or illusion of knowledge.

Since a running culture can only be as successful as the accuracy of the knowledge of the members within the culture (and their willingness to act correctly upon this knowledge), we all have a large responsibility. Anyone who gives advice to another runner – whether in an amateur coaching, professional coaching or peer-to-peer capacity – shares this responsibility.

Today, we have more information available to us than ever before but not necessarily more deep knowledge and certainly not more wisdom (ability to apply our information to specific real-life contexts). This leads to much advise being given that is shallow or misplaced. We can make several common mistakes such as assuming 1) methods that work for us will work for others and 2) if I read a research study or online article providing a suggestion I can pass the conclusion on without applying any context or tailoring to the individual.

In truth, our running culture would benefit if we all lived by the mantra ‘when in doubt, give no advice’ and instead let people figure the answer out through trial and error. To ensure we give advice others can apply we must ensure that:

  1. We know the full background and context behind the training advice we want to provide others (i.e. ‘the full story’)
  2. We only pass on information we have ourselves tried and we are ourselves invested in (this is known as ‘skin in the game’ and exemplified by the Roman example of having an architect sleep under the bridge he built – if it collapses, he dies too)
  3. We cross-check our advice against universal physical laws and what we know about how humans are evolved before passing it on (some coaches today refer to this as the ‘BS filter’

Point 2 refers to arm-chair coaches and arm-chairs commentators who are a major problem to the running culture in the West. This refers to anyone who recommends or criticises certain training practices based purely on theory – meaning they never tried or tested it themselves. These ‘pseudo-teachers’ also tend to be more concerned with ‘being right’ and gaining status within the running community rather than getting results.

Coaches who need to get results cannot afford to be wrong for very long so are very open to changing their minds or to try something first and criticise it later. Arm-chairs coaches and advisers tend to ignore context and this makes their advice particularly dangerous. If you receive such advice go back to the source and see what the advice was founded on. A good example is someone sharing a Kenyan training plan and recommending others follow it without explaining and analysing the background of the Kenyan runner and the environment he or she completed the training in.

Point 3 is necessary because even authoritative sources of information about training such as research papers may often be based on a narrow context at beast or, at worst, entirely false. If you pause for a moment and consider what you know about the laws of nature and how human beings would have lived and thrived before we became civilised, you can often deduce whether If not refer to the basic rule: give no advice. This latter part is a philosophy known as ‘Via Negativa‘ – from ancient Greek medicine – which deters us from intervening (advice is an intervention) – when we are unsure about the effects.

Whether you are a coach or simply an experienced runner, you can help make our running culture more knowledgeable, more wise and ultimately more successful by teaching through the principles pointed out here. We can take this too lightly because running is a casual hobby for many people.

In my early days of coaching, I possessed much greater certainty in my advice and teachings than I do know. The more I learn and the more I understand, the more I can see how little we all really know. When you understand that the totality of your knowledge, even when you are an expert, will always remain a very small part of what can be known, you begin to proceed with much greater caution and with greater respect for trial and error and less respect for deducing broad sweeping guidelines based on theory.

The incapable athlete

Definition: not adequate, helpless

Our modern culture has increasingly disenfranchised us from many of our own inborn abilities. This has an enormous knock-on effect on athleticism and physical competence in a population.

We live in a victim culture, in some places even a ‘nanny-state’, where the first response is generally to intervene rather than letting things ‘play out’ and allowing us, as individuals, to figure out solutions on our own.

This tendency even permeates our intellectual world. Any question or answer is only a click or Google search away. Most of us can no longer mend basic wounds. We go to the doctor to have issues dealt with that mothers, grandmothers and ‘wise uncles’ could easily take care of in the past.

Eager sellers of ‘artificial support’, armed with research studies, will put your limbs in a cast rather than carefully suggesting that ‘perhaps we can work this weakness for a bit and see if you can do it on your own’.

Human-kind arose to its dominant place on this planet because we had the necessary self-sufficiency – both within social groups and when on our own – to adapt and respond to a vast variety of physical and mental challenges every day. We could not always count on others to bail us out. Modern culture, for reasons of efficiency, drove us into specialised niches. As far as our sporting culture is concerned this has likely gone too far: we ‘outsource’ every small pain or decision to someone ‘with expertise’ become incapable and incompetent to ‘run our own bodies’ in the process.

I have a personal vision of a culture of competent and empowered individuals and athletes – much in the vein of what Australian coach Percy Cerutty dreamed of (and realised – in the microcosm of his Portsea Camp) – who do not need a consultant to tell them how to go to get out of bed in the morning.

My concerns are not with experts – therapists, coaches, consultants – I hope to count myself among them – but with the rule we ascribe to them in our society. We need these professionals to take on the role of teachers – so that when you have worked with a consultant or a therapist you are more capable and more independent than you were before you worked with them. This is the litmus test.

The difficulty comes from the pressure on consultants and therapists to ‘intervene’ even when it would be better to do less (it is hard to justify charging for services you do not deliver) and from patients who want ‘quick results’ or ‘instant fixes’. This increases the demand for short-term interventions (massage, ankle braces) at the expense of long-term education (physical conditioning, technical coaching). We need to reverse that relationship and unfortunately this can only be done coach by coach and athlete by athlete.

To begin: if you are therapist, health professional or coach who does not deal with emergency care, you should see your primary role as a long-term educator. Your aim is to make your student or patient fully self-sufficient. This means assisting them in getting rid of both physical and mental crutches. It also means that your success criteria is a student or patient who may one day no longer need you. This should not cause financial concern – dedicated students will want to learn ‘what’s next’ and even if they stop coming to you for advise, others will take note of their results and come to you.

Breeding such self-sufficiency back into our population will be a keystone piece in repairing our Running Culture.*

* And general culture. I have always seen my own life as evolving away from running specifically, and into life generally, as I get into ‘old age’. We all have a vested interest in all the people around us being capable and self-sufficient. Every person who is not increases the burden on the rest. That is not a call to ‘cull the weak’ – rather to empower them, where possible. 

 

 

 

The average of the 5 around you

5kenyansSuccessful businessman and multi-millionaire Dan Pena tells his students that ‘show me your friends and I will show you, your future’ pointing out that he believes every person is the average of the 5 people they spend the most time with.

We may be seeing a form of this effect in Kenya where you can bump into sub-2:10 marathoners with alarming regularity if you hang out in the clusters where most of the country’s top athletes come from. Most aspiring runners gravitate towards this area much like many ambitious runners gravitated towards Lydiard or Cerutty in the 1950s and 1960s – lured in, first by the rumours of a mysterious coach, and then by the obvious success of previous students.

To succeed it is likely, we need to judge our influences very carefully. Negative runners with limited self-belief and, perhaps, limited ability, may not make the best training partners if we truly want to ‘move on’ within the sport.

I have seen this in action in business: unless all partners are pulling evenly on the sleigh it doesn’t move in the right direction. I now hold myself to a very high standard in my profession: I expect a huge work-rate every day – no 4-hour work-week dreams here (watch out for my piece on the ‘4-hour coach’) – and I expect the same from my partners. Less than that and we go our separate ways because it only takes one weak cog to compromise the integrity of the wheel.

This rule could apply to your training group – so watch it. If you are looking for high performance, ensure everyone is on-board an have the mental attitude and commitment to the process. One bad egg can influence everyone in your training group downwards.

The apprentice must murder the master

The apprentice must murder the master

Every assistant coach should seek to supplant his teacher. Many ‘master coaches’ are threatened by the idea of their apprentices supplanting them and exist in a paranoid relationship conflicted between educating the apprentice and allowing them only enough room to maneuver to remain ‘in their place’ or, even worse, choosing second-rate apprentices because the best candidates prove too much of a threat to the master’s ego.

Any coach who teaches coaches or coaches who teach athletes who show an interest in the fine art must grow beyond this and accept that every apprentice you should take should ideally wish to supplant you. Darth Vader, villainous a character as he is, murdered his teacher Obi-Wan with the words ‘now, I am the master’. This aspiration of the apprentice is necessary or they will remain mediocre unable to grow beyond the dogmas of the master.

Since we know that it is a universal law that the sum of ‘anti-knowledge’ (what we do not know) will always remain higher than the sum of knowledge (‘what we do know’) staying within the boundaries of your master coaches’ knowledge will put a halt to the development of our coaching practices. Apprentices of such coaches will only ever be able to teach less than the master coach – with the result that the sum of the knowledge passed on to their apprentices and athletes is lower than the sum of the knowledge passed on by the original master coach. Each generation in this relationship becomes less wise on matters of how to train and live to optimise running. This rule, however, applies outside running culture and in general culture as well.

* For more on the concept of anti-knowledge read Nassim Taleb’s ‘Umberto Eco’s anti-library‘.

The master who has outgrown his own ego and can see further therefore seeks apprentices with potential to outgrow them and with that twist of ‘impatience’ and lingering impudence. They know that the break-up in their relationship – whether amicable or bitter – is inevitable. They do not seek to delay the apprentice’s maturation into full-scale teacher in their own right and if they are envious that their apprentice outgrows them and their success, they keep it to themselves so as to not become a lodestone around the neck of the new generation of coaches.

Too often great coaches have left no permanent dynasty in place to improve and maintain their teachings. As years pass by so the details of their wisdom fades and warps until it is a watered-down low-performance method. Instead, you can be more like Socrates and leave a Plato or more like Caesar and leave Augustus. This does not mean that delusional apprentices, unable to meet the standards of the master coach but convinced they are destined for greatness, should not be cast aside and resisted by the teacher. But a coach of coaches, or prospective coaches, must look at themselves and ask ‘am I merely threatened by this apprentice and frightened of the inevitable day when he surpasses me’. This concern takes on new social dimensions in a world of professional coaching and teachings where ‘losing control’ of your apprentices becomes similar to losing talented employees – to see them make money for themselves instead of for you.

As coaches we must accept this. We are trying to teach birds to fly the nest and not remain in it – content to feed on the scraps we feed them, grateful and dependent. I see too many coaches who try to educate ‘followers’ and ‘servants’ – watered down clones of themselves – instead of true heirs. Culturally enormous precedent exists – after all kings and emperors regularly murdered their most talented and ambitious sons. In athletics, we must resist this. We must subordinate our personal ego and needs to the needs of the sport. If educating a great student and letting him loose before you can personally profit fully then this is the sacrifice you place at the alter of our sport. (master coach: you never will ‘be completely satisfied’ with the term of service and the gratitude you receive – so do not look for it. Your reward is the survival of your teachings). Does this mean a master coach cannot be a human being an expect loyalty or gratitude? No, only that this should not be the prime motive in educating servants – because this shows that the master coach does not practice his craft for the right reasons. The coach with a true love for the sport of running, will accept the risk of no reward as long as the sport is advanced and see himself gratified in the success others create with his methods. The jealous and dictatorial master coach likely practices his craft for merely cynical or practical reasons – motivated primarily by personal glorification or enrichment. These coaches should not be welcome in our sport. We have enough raw material with a true passion – we do not need to tolerate interlopers. Showing them the door is not a negative act that leaves them ruined but instead a favour – even a mercy – because we push them out of an area for which they have no true passion. This will force a reflection on their part and hopefully set them on the path to coach in an area where they have true passion and will, happily and without promise of reward, educate worthy successors to carry on their passions and teachings.

Authors note 03/05/2016: This somewhat cynical title and seemingly negative portrayal of the master-coach to apprentice-coach relationship is not new. In recent times, it was painted by Robert Green in his excellent book ‘Mastery’. I have influenced many athletes and coaches while never formally accepting ‘an apprentice’. Should I do so my first words to him or her would be ‘it is your job to surpass me in all ways’. Among those I have influenced informally, I have seen this same dynamic at work – the learner takes from you what he believe he needs and ‘moves on’. I believe the net sum of frustrations on both coach and apprentice side will be lower when we embrace, upfront, the premise of this post. The long-term gain for our culture is less resistance in the path of future master coaches to train the next generation of athletes – with no barriers of jealousy and petty financial interest (portrayed as ‘protecting myself’ by those with a scarcity mindset rather than abundance mindset – a topic for another post).

Our fear of failure

You have heard all the excuses: ‘Thursday’s session is still in my legs’, ‘its not really my distance’, ‘I prefer the trails’, ‘I was treating it as a training run’, ‘  and, of course, ‘my granny died’.

Legendary coach Percy Cerutty admonished sound advice when he implored runners to stick the excuses or stay away from the races. A manly and womanly ideal now somewhat forgotten. I believe this presents a significant problem to our culture beyond the general annoyance it presents to those around the ‘excusenik’.

In a different domain, multi-millionaire Dan Pena hits a sore spot with his mentees on a regular basis when he asks them to accept that they are not taking sufficient risks to succeed in business due to a basic lack of self-esteem.

‘Fear of failure is caused by lack of self-esteem and confidence. Dealing with fear is key to super success’ -Dan Pena

He is right. We live in a culture that has come to celebrate mediocrity because we all grow up expecting a pat on the back for the most basic achievement. ‘Resting in yourself’ and ‘seeking no clamour’ are things of the past as we post our 3 km training run through several social media sites and hungrily wait for the applause to rain down on us. Now, resist the urge to comment and call me a person who is ‘down on people of moderate ability’ and reflect for a moment. Do we really believe it represents a healthy culture when we cannot do a simple healthy thing or a small challenge without the need to have our egos stroked? Does this not rather represent a collective lack of self-esteem and general lack of sufficient self-love when we have to seek this kind of digital adoration? I do believe this culture harms us all – not only does it set the bar for ‘achievement’ lower and lower. When everyone is a hero, no one is a hero. It means that seeing a 5 km time of 18:30 as a fabulous time for a male athlete becomes the norm rather than 17:30 (random example – insert any distance and time you wish). As our bar get’s lower and lower, running cultures like the Kenyan get’s higher and higher. Imagine the Eldoret conversation: ‘What do you mean you only ran a 2:15 marathon? Are you ill?’

To improve our running culture, we must kick our own backsides and the backsides of those around us. If you are not an alpha-male (or woman) this does not have to be through tough love – but through proper motivation rather than ‘ra ra’ applauding as someone manages to tie their shoe-laces properly. We owe it to ourselves to set proper standards and to be brutally honest with ourselves about why we make excuses for our own performances. You can be entirely certain that no one cares about your excuses except yourself – and that people will judge you lesser because of them. Vow to never make another excuse – put up or shut up – and set a strong precedent from which a culture of high performers can grow. Begin to do things for their own sake and for personal reasons – stop doing it merely to try and impress others. I do not advice killing all praise or becoming a Zen Monk – indifferent to the opinion of others – but you have to ask yourself ‘am I merely doing this because of how I think it makes others view me?’

Running a poor race does no more make you a bad person than running a fantastic marathon makes you a superb individual. It merely tells us something of how an individual with certain talents performed on the day. A person of medium talent performing splendidly tells a tale of someone with great dedication getting just rewards. If he does not boast about it, we respect him or her even more, although, it should be said, exceptions exist and many of us admire the Muhammad Alis and Conor McGregors of this world. The reason, we admire these people is the same reason I wrote this post: these champions possess courage that most lack especially when we have not yet admitted to ourselves that our self-esteem is not what it should be . Ali, McGregor et al. put themselves out there and like all high performers they don’t waste time thinking about what other people may think of them. And that is the crucial point if we want to move our collective running culture forward: STOP caring what others think – do it for your reasons and be yourself. Put your opinions and your actions out there and if people don’t like it – well tough for them. You’re too busy getting ahead in the world and doing the doing.

Authors note (02/05/2016): I hold coaches, and myself, largely responsible for developing the confidence necessary to abandon our collective fear of failure and put an end to excuses and other symptoms of low self-esteem. Coaches are the teachers. But we absolve athletes of all responsibility – they must be willing to listen and take some honest criticism. The generation grown up believing that praise is the only valid form of feedback will never reach super-success. They must listen or we must abandon them until they wake up and smell the roses.