Monthly Archives: March 2012

Infection – the runners’ paradox


In common with probably 90% of part-time runners in the UK, I spent much of last week coughing up the insides of my lungs. It is one of the small ironies of regular exercise that it seems to make you more and not less prone to illnesses such as coughs or flu.

I appreciate that this is counter-intuitive. Over the last thirty years, I’ve become more and more conscious of the messages around me telling me to exercise. There are far more private gyms than there used to be. Health insurers market themselves as offering cheaper rates to those who exercise regularly. And there is of course far more sport on television. Hell, there are even many more people wearing sports clothes on the streets.

In common with everyone who reads this blog, I am well aware that increased personal exercise reduces stress, weight, cholesterol, blood pressure and heart disease. Yet I am also aware that the periods of my life in which I’ve done the most exercise have also been the ones in which my body was most prone to break down (as one friend put it to me recently: “I was really enjoying my running before the injury struck, but isn’t that always the way?”).

More than that, I know that runners aren’t just prone to knee and shin injuries; we also seem to suffer far more routinely from chest and lung infections than most other people.

The best evidence is that while running does all sorts of long-term good to runners’ bodies, an exercise session immediately diminishes the effectiveness of our immune systems

One study of 2300 marathon runners found that 13% contracted an illness in the week following the race. (Of those who pulled out of the marathon, only 2% were sick in the same period).

This picture has been corroborated by detailed studies of smaller cohorts of athletes; whose immune systems (i.e. blood lymphocyte percentages and immunoglobulin levels) appear to have deteriorated precisely in response to intense exercise).

It’s not hypochondria; it’s a real condition.

Circuit training; gingerly


Nearly a year after I restarted running, I’ve been trying to build up to a style of training that suits my current fitness. There are two parts to this:

First, by any runners’ standard I am shockingly unfit. I feel overweight (5’10, 170 lbs or so). I have suffered repeated tendon injuries over the past few months, which took me out of action for nearly eight weeks on each side of Christmas. And as I try to build myself up to running again, I live in constant fear that I will re-tear my achilles.

Second, despite all that, I think that I have retained some fast-twitch muscle, going back to my teens, or going back maybe to some relatively intense gym work I was doing 2-3 years ago. My best evidence of this is my most recent 5k time (at the end of October last year) – just under 23 minutes. In age terms, this is no worse than my half marathon time of 7 years ago: 1 hr 41.

Given that this was the first time I’d run 5k, even in training, for 5 years, I was delighted by how fast the time was.

So how to develop this base fitness, without running too far and injuring myself again?

Inspired by recent research that even very small bouts of exercise, so long as they are conducted at very high intensity, can be as fruitful as long runs at a gentler pace, I’ve been experimenting with a form of fartlek that is based on the sort of track running I used to do in my teens.

I’ve found a small park near me with a circular area, just 100 metres or so in circumference. I run laps of it, building up my sprinting distance until I am running at a relatively high intensity for the entire “circuit” (and then recovering to a very slow jog in between).

I am running gingerly: I keep the number of circuits low and I am even now going at a “slow” version of my top pace. But my plan is to build these up – slowly – until I can run maybe three sessions of these mini-circuits mid-week, then break for a day or two before a longer weekend run.

If it works; I’ll report back on progress.

Should drug users be banned from the Olympics?


Mark Richardson
The most brilliant athlete I’ve ever seen close up was Mark Richardson. My age; a specialist in the adjoining event (400 metres to my 800 metres), I remember him from school championships.

He was a charismatic runner; from the gun, he would immediately be in contention. At 50 metres, he would allow himself to ease to the front. The next 50 metres were the key part of the race. Briefly, he would allow his body to reach its maximum acceleration, establishing a four or five metre lead. And then, for the rest of the race, he was ease personified. Often he was barely jogging by the time he reached the finish line. I never saw another runner come close to him. Even forcing him to sweat would have been a challenge.

Mark went on to be one of the very few athletes ever to beat the quadruple Olympic champion Michael Johnson.

Holder of gold medals of his own for the 4 x 400 metre relay at the World and European Championships, Mark failed a drugs test in autumn 1999 for use of the steroid nandrolone. He blamed the test result of dietary supplements but did not contest the ban, and returned to competitive activity in 2001 before achilles injuries forced him out of the sport.

Was Mark a drugs cheat? He had said that he was not; rather he accepted that he been negligent in taking supplements without knowing their contents but denied intent. I don’t believe that this put him in a very different position from Dwain Chambers whose case is before the Court of Abritration today.

Had Mark not been injured; would I have liked to see him run at the Olympics? Yes. Because I have an understanding that the circumstances under which a serious athlete can blur the line are closer than some people seem to think; that in a humble chemists’ shop there are any number of chemicals which can make an athlete faster, and the temptation is always there.

Because I know that there are already all sorts of legitimate ways in which the richest sporting federations can purchase better outcomes for their preferred athletes: altitude training, buy-outs from paid employment, access to the very top advice in terms of nutrition, training etc.

And because I believe that people deserve a second chance. Mark Richardson did his crime, but he also served his time. And that should be the end of it.

A gentle jog at 10 minute/mile pace


I am still recovering from achilles strains, while all this week my chest has beeen layered in mucus.

The canal is busy with others running. My best guess is that several of the other joggers are preparing for London in 6 weeks’ time.

I cross hoardings advertising student housing (“Do you want to see my room?”); mocked-up postcards reporting their senders’ identikit glee from similiarly ticky tacky houses in Bermuda, Dublin … to which itinerary can now be added my own ex-red light district of inner North London.

I leave the house hoping to run for 60 minutes but my left ankle stiffens and I settle for a little more than half my planned miles.

Lives; running


“I have raced along summer beaches and across frozen lakes. I have sprinted along canals and beside riverbanks. Once, I raced a friend around two laps of the largest outdoor swimming pool in Europe, the bathers lifting their legs upwards in an attempt to catch our trailing feet. I ran on the day of the worst storms the country had ever known, battling the wind on the way out, my fingers pointing out and up, my head ten degrees forwards of vertical. On the way back, I ran the same four miles even faster, jubilant at my speed, triumphing over nature. There were many victories.”

“I have run in joy, I have run in so many kinds of pain.”

“Today, the din of my feet on gravel is ponderously slow. I run slowly and without style, just like a dad dancing.”

Lives; running is the story of a running career.

Lives; running will be published by Zero Books in July 2012.