Some really interesting stuff this week, from how the pandemic is affecting college cross country programs to what physiological advances we might see in new attempts at marathon world records to Michael Phelps opening up about how the current state of the world is affecting his mental health. Let’s dig in.
I am a big fan of Alex Hutchinson and his work breaking down the complex science of endurance training into easy to understand information all readers can enjoy. His book, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance is a must read for runners. Here, in his article for Outside Magazine, Hutchinson shares hypotheses from endurance sports researchers about what physiological traits might have contributed to the recent explosion in fast marathoning (beyond the shoes) and how those traits could be utilized in future races. One that stood out to me was improving neural efficiency, basically requiring the brain to use less oxygen during a race, which could possibly be accomplished with pacemakers (or for sub-elite runners more carefully following a pace group).
With the pandemic scything through college budgets, sports are starting to face the axe. In this piece Justin Horneker examines the University of Akron’s decision to cut its cross country program, a decision he explains may not accomplish the money-saving goals it is hoping to achieve. Horneker digs deeper into the finances of mid-major athletic programs, the drag football can be on their budgets, and why sports like track and field and cross country often bear the brunt of the cost-cutting pain. He concludes with a look into the future and the changes that will need to occur if the US loses college programs as its main development pipeline for world class runners
I linked to The Growth Equation Podcast two weeks ago and share another excellent episode in this week’s newsletter. The episode is wide-ranging, covering Flanagan’s late career, including her 2017 NYC Marathon victory, and her transition into coaching and more recently into motherhood. What stands out during the conversation is Flanagan’s eagerness to share performance secrets with others, something she did during her career, likely a contributing factor to the so-called Shalane Effect (multiple training partners made Olympic teams after working with her), and something she does in this podcast as well. I plan on listening to the episode again to take notes, the information is that good.
I listened to this podcast after I had read the Hutchinson article I linked to earlier. Shalane notes that one of the fallouts from her athletes having to train in isolation or small groups has been the recognition of how much more difficult it can be to train harder runs when the full group is not present to take some of the load (she specifically cites interval training where a group of ten running ten total intervals might have one person take the lead for one interval each with everyone else needing to focus only on keeping pace with the leader). I thought it linked well with what Hutchinson said about improving neural efficiency by letting the brain shut off.
Told in the first person to ESPN writer Wayne Drehs, Phelps shares how the pandemic has at times overwhelmed him as he struggles to adapt to the necessary changes to keep the public, and himself, safe, and wonders what a post-pandemic world will look like. Phelps has been up front with his mental health challenges in the past and it is refreshing to hear from someone well-trained in handling the psychological aspects of performance about how he is nonetheless struggling with the monumental disruption to his life, something we are all dealing with. Phelps is forthright—he knows his financial situation allows him to weather the storm better than most—but his struggles with the disruption to his daily routine, with being locked down at home, with not knowing how or when this will truly end, are all familiar to me in the last few months and I suspect familiar to readers as well.
I began a story a month ago on what Meb’s 2014 Boston victory could teach us about coming out of the pandemic and I was never able to make it work. In this article, Brad Stulberg far more eloquently gives voice to what I was trying to say and so I just link to him instead. Stulberg notes four practices that endurance athletes apply to their training and racing and that we can apply to enduring the marathon that this pandemic is shaping into. The practices are simple, but simple does not mean they are easy to apply; they will take time to incorporate into your own life and a clear head about where we are and where we are not. That said, this is my tenth year of endurance running and I have been thankful on several occasions these last three months for what marathon training has taught me about how to survive and even thrive during something long and difficult. This is a worthwhile read to begin applying some of those lessons yourself.