Τετάρτη, 23 Νοεμβρίου 2011

Technology in sports. Is it a mind game?

Nowadays runners, cyclists, swimmers and in general whoever is involved in sports at whatever level, has access to all this amazing instruments which are monitoring crucial factors of the workouts, the sleep, the nutrition, the technique, and all this on 24x7!!! Athletes or casual sports enthusiasts have watches or smart phones with sensors that will record, analyse and present in a very comprehensible format, all the needed information. Furthermore, numerous studies and training plans have been based on the findings of these recordings, that will guide with certainty every athlete for the proper training plan.

It is amazing for most of us to be able to access all this information so easily, especially compared to just 15 years ago when all this was accessible only to elite athletes, through expensive laboratories. Also there is this new sight in every race where runners, cyclists, swimmers, have their attention (or part of it) focused on their gps-watches and stopwatches, that will give them the much appreciated feedback to achieve their target. Most of the times, their watches will indicate the distance, or the pace, the heart rate, the calories consumed, the power output, signal when to eat and drink for endurance sports. It looks like we all have access to a personal coaching service every step of the way!

As I have mentioned in an other article in this blog, there is this principle in physics which is called the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in quantum physics. In simple words this principle is presenting how the observation is affecting the subject being observed. It is always convincing to present Quantum physics principles related to sports!!!

The moment an athlete looks at his/her sports watch, it is an undeniable moment of truth. The stop-watch will inform about the time achievement so far, which will be translated to an estimated pace by the brain. Similar information will be passed on by the distance indication, the heart rate monitor, the power meter, etc. Given the fact that the athlete is using these instruments for training as well, the performance comparison cannot be avoided. So, even subconsciously, emotions will be generated which will correlate to muscle control adaptations. These emotions are partly caused by the information presented by the monitoring device and partly by the character and the reaction of the athlete.

When we count our push-ups during a strength training work out, we know that our capacity is at xx number of repetitions. The closer we get to this limit (and we know that we are getting close, because... we are counting!) the more fatigued we become. Most of the times, we stop as soon as we reach this number of repetitions. If someone was to ask us "how many repetitions can we do", the answer would pop up easily (based on the experience). In a similar manner, if someone would ask us, how fast can you run a half marathon, we would come up with a time performance which is derived from our experience during training or previous races.

The question is: Is this blocking us from going faster, further? Is, this kind of detailed information, making the wall that we need to overcome, even taller? I have read many books about training plans and tables with performance indications for all levels of athletes. All of these are focused on exploiting the wealth of information provided by the monitoring devices, to lead the way to a higher level of physical activity achievements. But there are very few touching the subject of training the mind and the character so that it will be able to achieve the goals! Most of the times, it is expected to train the brain, just by applying discipline and determination to follow a training plan and then to apply this during a race. But it is obvious, that if we apply the same training plan to any two different persons, the outcome will be different, even if they start from the same physical level and their everyday training is done on exactly the same conditions! So, what is that makes each one of us different? It is our brain and our way of thinking.

In sports we can see the real character of every one. When the going gets tough or when the limit seems to be getting closer, we react in ways that have nothing to do with our training, but only with our character. Training the character thus the brain to react in situations and address key points during physical activity, in a way that will help deal successfully with what lays ahead, will allow to discover new frontiers.

There is an article I 've read recently about the training methods followed by marathon runners in eastern Africa countries. Their approach is totally different to anything I have seen. The runners tend to run not based on their capabilities, but according to the capabilities of the fastest runner of the group. This way, many will collapse early in the race or even in the training. Very few will be able to follow till the last stages. But they all learn to challenge their limits every time. And the limits are not set by a monitoring device, which cannot calculate the level of physical capability at the specific moment. The limits are set by the runners' real capacity on that specific moment. The big benefit that comes out of this method is that, from time to time, everyone will manage something that appeared to be out of reach at the start of the effort. This is a moment of revelation and it is engraved as experience on the mind. next time this runner, will address the task in a different way. This is the way to move to higher levels, and maximize the outcome of any training plan.

Looking back in the last 3 decades of sports history, when they started becoming a massive trend, we have seen the rise of the physical approach to the preparation of the athletes, then we experienced the rise of chemical physiology with applications in nutrition and supplements, and in the recent years, we see the technological explosion providing amazing information to everyone. The next level should be the training of the brain. Training the mind to overcome barriers, and to attempt conquering new frontiers. To handle the body in a whole different way. This is the only way to maximize the effect of all the previous technological advancements.

Trail : Get Ready For, la préparation mentale from OVERSTIM.s on Vimeo.

Τρίτη, 8 Νοεμβρίου 2011

My "no plan" 100miles mountain run: ROUT 2011

It has been 2 weeks already since my participation at Rodopi Ultra Trail (ROUT) 100miler. This is the first race in which I have applied (following my blog post a few weeks ago) a "no plan" approach. I started the race with no pacing plan and even further, just a quick look at the altitude profile and the space between support stations. This is a special race with lots of trails and sparse support stations: only 6 stations for 100 miles. Also it offers an experience of isolation, since there are only two village crossings and at the same time with only 63 participations it is guaranteed to lonely in the trails.

I arrived at the registration area just the day before the event (actually early afternoon). Set up my camping tent with my buddies at a very nice spot near the start line.  I tried to avoid any discussion about my plan (non existent) and details about the course. It was clear in my head that I would run only by feel. The race does not have any requirements regarding equipment and accessories. So it is a good opportunity to follow your instinct and go according to your own needs. So my pack included 1lt of water (when needed I could go up to 2.3lts), some sandwiches, bars and gels, as well as minimal clothing, a light wind-stopper jacket, a pair of gloves and a light wind stopper over-trouser. The weather forecast was very favorable for the whole duration of the event. I also packed my GPS and two headlights. Some more clothes and food was packed at my drop bag that I would have access at two spots during the run (69 and 123km).

At 06:00am Friday 63 runners were forming a small friendly group ready to start. A light breakfast was already in the belly and the weather even though cold, it was just fine given the early morning start. In my mind I have adopted a very simplistic approach: It was just one more long run at a very easy going pace. Did not know much about the altitude profile or the terrain, but... nothing could go wrong!

Started my run at a very relaxed pace. For the first few kms I was among a group of 8-10 runners leading just behind the leader who was already out of sight! A call to nature delayed me a bit, but after a couple of kms I was back in the group. The weather was really promising! My backpack contained only water, calories, two retractable running poles and a GPS. Around 3kgr in total. One more stop to get rid of my light wind stopper and then on the move again.

The feeling of the sun raising and the clear blue sky was very nice. It was not too hot or too cold. Around 12-14deg C. Hydration needs were normal, which was very important. After the first 10 kms I found myslef running alone for a while. I was going at my own pace feeling like I could go on for ever. And that is how I kept going. Around km 30 I caught up with a group of 3 runners, two of them familiar, Makis and Dimitris, along with a third rookie in ultra trail runs. We were running a bit like accordeon, opening and closing the distance from uphill to downhill or from check point to check point. I had this pleasant feeling and I did not care much about the pace or how much distance I have covered, or what was lying ahead. I had this pace of "going on for ever", and that was enough for me.

The route was magnificent, in dense vegetation, forests and on trails or forest roads. A couple of steep downhills were making me a bit more cautious not to overstress my quads, even though at one point it was really demanding and reminded me a lot of UTMB inclination. It was the long downhill of Oksia which challenged my quads for a while. But after that, everything was more gentle again. What is interesting is that I never got too anxious about what was coming up next. I had almost no clue. Dimitris was familiar with the route and from time to time he was revealing some details of what was ahead, but that was it. My mentality was, that I can take whatever comes! Weather was on our side. At some point I was running critical on water, but as long as I used my last drop of water, after 10 minutes we crossed a nice stream an was happy to refill my camel-back.

My approach was working fine. I had no ups or downs. Usually at km 80 I start feeling a bit discouraged, being half way through the run and feeling a bit tired makes you wonder how are you supposed to manage the 2nd half. This did not happen. My explanation resides to the fact that my "no plan" approach removed one complication from my run: I had nothing to compare with! There was no point that I would say that I am going a bit faster than the plan, or any point were my slow pace due to tiredness would make me think that I am falling behind my plan. This was a revelation to me. These thoughts are multiplying your emotions when in a race. So ... I did not have this effect!

Night came and we were at km 80. Our pace was spot on for sub 30 hours. But I tried to keep this kind of calculations out of my head. The guys (at that point we were reduced to 3 in total - the young fellow slowed down wisely), were a bit surprised at our pace since they had an estimation in their mind when they started and it was nowhere close to 30hrs! Anyway, we kept going. Night goes by faster than day! Senses are more alert and the last thing you think about is the time or the uphill that you meet. The only thing that I do not like about night time, is that I am missing some nice views!

The weather was fine. Temperature was close to zero, but it did not matter as long as we kept moving. Warm soups at the few aid stations were more than welcomed (caution... not too hot!). We were moving at a constant pace and before we realized it, we were at the end of the loop (the route consists of a tail and a loop - the tail is the part that we go out and then we do it again when we return towards the finish). A fellow runner, Christos, was catching up with us from station to station, but our fast walking pace at some parts was too much for him since he as shorter than the three of us.

The early morning sun found us at the last major station before the finish line: Prasinada! We were consistent for a sub 30hrs finish. Legs were ok, no low point feeling for me and we were exchanging motivation bursts with the guys trying to speed up a bit. After we passed the 130th km mark, I did not care much about anything. I knew that I had a very pleasant run with friends. The last 30km could not change that and I was confident that the finish line was in sight.

Well... this race has a special finish! Consists of a steep uphill starting at km 146, just 20km before the finish! This is a quad killer! Imagine a total of 1000m of climb (incline of 16%) while you are already at the 148 km in the race... We started going up all happy and psyched about our imminent sub-30hrs finish. Half way to the top of this uphill, even though we kept eating consistently, our legs were totally burned! No bad feeling or frustration, since the finish line was very close... But legs were really struggling to keep pushing upwards. A sort flat and downhill break, made us laugh at the sight of the three of us, not being able to run the downhill trail! And then it was again all the way up! By that time we have totally forgot the 30hours goal. just 12 kms before the finish and yet feeling our legs heavy as anchors.

We got to the top. As I said, there were no hard feelings in me. Just some heavy and empty quads. I knew that there were 7kms left of a slightly uphill route but normally, completely runnable. We have agreed to finish all together. We were position 4-5-6 in the ranking. I was suggesting some running intervals every now and then, trying to find some nice motivational excuses for the guys. Always in races like this one, I start feeling the finish line anxiety in the last few kms. I had it now as well, but we were a team the three of us and we would go together. A great team it was!

Just crossed the finish line. Me in the middle.

We crossed the finish line all together, running and happy, at 31hrs 42min and ranking 4th all three of us (yes... we are organizers' ranking nightmare). I must admit that this was the endurance run with the less low points I have ever done! Following my analysis of the no plan approach I would say that I need some more ultra running events to finalize my opinion. One thing though is clear: Planning creates one more complication in our mind. It is up to us to make good use of it or not. But it is certain that a plan will amplify your feelings when you realize that you are deviating from it. My next ultra running event, will be without plan as well. I enjoyed ROUT a lot!

I fell asleep during the massage session after the finish. Legs were just fine the very next day. Three days after was able to go out and run again, but managed to constrain myself. My annual 4 weeks "off" period has started.

38 finished the 100miler out of the 63 who started. The event is one of these casual, no-fireworks ultras but also with a sufficient and well planned organization. I ate some sandwiches of banana-bread with peanut butter and honey, 4 sesame bars, 5 nature valley bars, 10 gels (I found very efficient the High5 4:1), some salty crackers and several dozens of sugar jelly beans. Drunk about 10 liters of water and another 2 liters of isotonic.

Yes... I did carry all my garbage packaging all the way back to Athens. 
Here you can get an idea of the remains!
Jelly beans frenzy.

Saturday evening, I packed my tent and moved to the nearby city of Kavala to sleep at a friends house and spend some time in the sea-side city. Sunday evening was back in Athens and the whole stream of news about the crisis was all over the place. At least we got some peace of mind, a nice winter jacket with our name embroidered on it, and a long lasting experience up on the trails of Rodopi.

A big thank you to the organizers. Race details: www.rout.gr

Τρίτη, 1 Νοεμβρίου 2011

A referendum in troubled Greece

The facts as of today (1st of Nov 2011) are:
  1. The agreement that was announced a week ago regarding the reduction of the Greek sovereign debt has not been put on paper with all the terms and conditions. Estimations are that this agreement will take about 2 months to finalize in all details.
  2. The Greek political scene has nothing to do with the German or French or English scenes. Greek political parties are depending heavily on popularism and opposition to the government. But without proposing any alternatives.
  3. Greek citizens are vulnerable to the "easy words" and cheap promises spoken by the political parties. It is very rare to see citizens with real knowledge and understanding about the promises and proposals being made by politicians.
  4. The Greek government has very few weapons in the effort to negotiate the details of the restructuring of the Greek sovereign debt, within the next two months. One of them is the threat of public up-rise and social instability. EU knows that images from social turmoil in Greece can be easily contagious to other European societies.
  5. Greece is only the tip of the iceberg of the Eurozone crisis. Italy, Spain, Belgium and subsequently France are just hiding under the surface...
The announcement of a referendum by prime minister George Papandreou will create the following reactions:
  • Will force several Greeks to study the agreement, once made available. Therefore will increase the level of public awareness of the situation the country is in. It is addressing bullet #3 presented above. I do not need to stress how important this is for a society about to take important decisions!
  • It is a straightforward message to the European Union, that the content of this agreement will be subject to public investigation and voting and it will not go through as easily as the agreement of 2010 when it was passed by the sole signature of the minister of finance (under great time pressure but also with undemocratic methods). So PM Papandreou is exploiting one of the few weapons he has available in his negotiations with the EU and the IMF. He is hitting bullet #4 presented above.
  • Once the agreement is made public, the political parties in Greece will have to talk (more than before...) about the essence of the two choices that will lay ahead. And these will be: Stay in the Eurozone, or exit the Eurozone. And the choice that will be voted by the majority on the referendum will be binding for any future government. Thus dismissing any easy attempts for cheap promises and easy words by the political parties in Greece. This way it is addressing bullets #2, 3. And this is to the best interest of the EU...
With these facts in mind, I think that the announcement of the referendum was a smart political move by Papandreou and will serve the most important purposes of his administration. Of course, given the fact that the Greek political parties are treating voters as clients, this choice will be heavily contested since it is making their road more rough and their "sale" more difficult.

Many will say that governments should be responsible for their choices and they are elected to take decisions. This is true. But this relies on a foundation of a wise electorate and responsible political scene. These two foundations do not exist in Greece. And maybe it is not only Greece that is missing these foundations...

European governments should step back, do their job (prepare a fair deal with Greece) and let Papandreou deal with the Greek society. Also they should start looking at their own mess and stop putting Greece in the front line. There are way more serious problems in the Eurozone than the Greek sovereign debt. And those who talk about the lies of the past, should start looking at their own lies as well. Eurozone was built on lies and they knew it. Is it too late to start talking about truth and claim whatever chances exist to advance the EU to the next level? If there are some chances towards this direction (personally I am pessimistic), then this referendum is in the right direction.