Bums or Clocks

Do you chase bums or clocks? I am not a racer. But I do check my performance today against my performance yesterday and the day before.  It helps to motivate and it gives a sense of achievement. If I know it took me 13 minutes to get up a certain hill the last time I rode it and only 12 minutes today, I am happy – even if somebody’s grandfather left me standing half way up. So I look at the clock, but not only the clock. I also enjoy riding with a group because I often find that somehow I ride better with a group. So what drives better performance? Riding against the clock and pacing yourself to challenge your personal best? Or chasing the bum in front, that is, riding with a group and working to support and push a pace?

In a fascinating article in the July/August issue of Walrus (“Racing Against Time” www. Walrusmagazine.com ) Alex Hutchinson looks at recent research into what drives best performance. In the past, performance was evaluated in relation to physical capacity and limits. Training was designed to increase capacity and limits and improvement was measured against the clock. Race strategy was based on performing at the edge of your limits so you could achieve the best time possible based on your capacity.  The limits to capacity were understood by measuring when and to what extent muscle, heart and lung performance began to drop off. This drop off was understood to be a purely physical phenomenon.

As Hutchinson points out however, new research, much of it lead by a physiologist named Tim Noakes who runs the University of Cape Town’s Exercise Science and Sports Medicine Research Unit and who Hutchinson characterizes as ‘a controversial exercise physiologist whom some peg as the greatest of his generation,’ suggests the mind is an equally important player. In the article we follow the Canadian marathon runner Reid Coolsaet as he attempts to meet the qualifying time for the London 2012 Olympics. The Olympic qualifying time is 2:11:29. This is new territory for Coolsaet. He has trained hard to achieve a pace of 3:05 per km over the 42.2 km race. His race strategy is to set and maintain that pace.

The race is the 2011 Toronto marathon. The field includes several Kenyans and Ethiopians capable of running 2:05 to 2:08. The night before the race Coolsaet goes to his coach and says he wants to throw the plan away and run with the leaders. He does and comes third, well under the Olympic qualifying time; and this included a stop at 22km to take a dump.

What Noakes’ research has discovered is that performance limits are not purely physical. When you chase the clock, the mind closes down effort before the muscles are damaged. But with the added motivation of living competition the mind will alter the thresholds and enable more effort.

So my hope is that riding with the rest of the Tour d’Afrique riders will provide the extra motivation to pass the EFI threshold. One can always hope.

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