In the running (New Scientist – 4 Aug 04 – Michael Bond)
Edwin Moses is widely recognised as the greatest 400-metre hurdler ever. By the time he retired from athletics in 1989, he had won two Olympic gold medals and a bronze, run 107 consecutive victories and broken the world record four times. Underlying that success was a strong belief in applying science to training. Now, at the age of 48, he is planning a comeback. Michael Bond asked him why
>> How can people of your age carry on doing competitive athletics?
The first thing is to get in condition, the second is to stay free of any major injury. Someone my age trying to do high-intensity work could have a heart attack out there. You have to be very careful how you approach the training. The key is to start a long time before the event.
>> So what time are you running the 400-metre hurdles in these days?
Actually I’m not running them at all right now. I have a slight problem to my knee that goes back years. I tore a meniscus in 1985 and it never really bothered me. Then last August the problems began, but it didn’t get in the way until last Christmas when I started intensifying my training and running a lot of miles, including up and down hills. I can hurdle completely fine, but I cannot run the 600 or 700 miles it would take to get me in top condition. The constant grinding bothers me. I need surgery to repair it otherwise it is just going to get worse.
>> Is that an important lesson?
If you develop an injury it is important to get rid of it quickly. For example, if you developed a muscle cramp that put you out for 10 days, then three days after resuming running it started hurting again, putting you out for three more days – that would kill a training programme completely. I had a couple of cramps last summer that I managed to get rid of, which was a very positive sign. Everything was set. Then the knee began to hurt. Before the injury my only question was whether, after 15 years not running at the competitive level, my training regime would allow me to do now what it allowed me to do 15 years ago.
>> Are you disappointed?
I am, but at the same time I have been in the game for 30 years and have been out there training every day for 6 or 8 hours. At 48 years old, training every day is definitely more difficult. It takes up a lot of time, and it’s not as if athletics is all I do now. Psychologically it is different when you are older. But I thoroughly believe that if it wasn’t for the knee I could have run the 400-metre hurdles in under 50.5 seconds to make the Olympic team. And if I can get my knee back in shape – which I will – I will compete anyway in the next couple of years.
Your approach to training and preparation was radical in its day. How much of that was down to your science background?
I studied physics at Morehouse College in Atlanta, and among those doing athletics with me there were four or five other physicists, as well as medical and engineering students and other scientists. To be in that academic environment was motivating. This was the mid-1970s, there were no desktop computers or internet, and sports science was in its early days.
>> Did you do research that would help you directly?
I started doing a lot of research into training. I looked at other competitors and what they were doing. One of my best friends, an engineering student, was state champion in Ohio in the 110-metre hurdles and he taught me a lot about hurdling. I started getting ideas.
I was very interested in the artistic part of running. One of my room-mates was a ballet dancer, and I thought there were a lot of similarities in what we were doing. I was interested in the whole physicality of running, and that made me a better athlete. Hurdles is not a brute-strength sport. I have a long stride and didn’t have a lot of weight to carry, but I was never the strongest or biggest and I had to compensate in other ways.
>> How did you compensate?
It was all about preparation. I increased my stamina by looking into diet, stretching, weight-training, biometrics and research on breathing and lactic acid. After the 1976 Olympics, I went to Finland, where a company called Polar was developing heart-rate monitors. I got one of the first they produced, and by 1980 I was collecting lots of data about my heart-rate, monitoring things during my long-distance runs such as how long it would take my heart to recover while running downhill. I monitored all this every day. Then in 1983 I bought my first computer and I fed the data into some simple graphics programs. I could see how and where I was improving and where I needed to improve further.
>> How did you train?
I trained totally differently from most athletes. Traditionally, the furthest you would run in practice for the 400-metre hurdles would be 300 metres, but I would run up to six miles up and down hills and across golf courses to build up stamina. I used to train with Henry Rono, the Kenyan long-distance runner, who broke four world records in 1978. He was my room-mate in California.
One of the most important things was my use of physical therapy as a rehabilitative measure. When I was training in my prime I used to go to a physical therapist, Ken Yoshino, four or five days a week immediately after practice. We used a lot of techniques that are common now but that everyone thought were really strange back then.
>> Such as…
We did something called “proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation” stretching, which is a dynamic stretching where a therapist stretches you while you resist. You do it after you’ve sat in an ice-bath for 20 minutes. It cuts down on any pain and the inflammation and swelling you get from high-intensity running. Most people think that if you stretch when you’re cold you’ll be stiff as a brick, but actually you get a much better stretch, because the cold anaesthetises the nerves and makes the muscles relax. In addition, as your muscles warm up all the lactic acid drains out of them as the warm blood flows back in. You get a total flushing of the whole area, which also cuts down the number of micro-capillary tears. But you need to do it with someone who knows what they’re doing or you could tear a muscle.
>> Was the use of ice counter-intuitive at the time?
When I started using ice, no one else would touch it. Athletes avoided it like the plague. Everyone thought heat was the way to rehabilitate injuries. I went the opposite way, and it ended up putting three to five years on my career. It was like an ongoing experiment, and it was very effective for me at the world-class level. Now everyone’s using ice.
>> Would you have been as good an athlete without science?
Not at all. I didn’t get an athletics scholarship at a major school. I went to a small private school that was highly academic, and that was a major reason I became the athlete I did. I wasn’t under pressure to perform. I did it because I loved the sport and wanted to be involved in it. I’m sure I wouldn’t have been an Olympic champion if I had gone to any other school. It was all about the academic environment there.
>> When the gun goes off, how much are you thinking about the science and mechanics of running?
Probably not at all. When it comes to race day I don’t think about anything. To put it in a nutshell, I train for 10 months of the year to run 12 or 15 races at three-quarters of a minute. All this training compressed into 12 minutes. I’ve thought about the dynamics of running, how to slow myself down and speed up. A lot of it is muscle memory. When the race starts you are on auto-drive, time is compressed. After the race you can hardly remember anything. Sometimes, three or four days later, one little mistake pops into your brain. When everything’s gone well you don’t remember too much.
>> Why do you want to compete again?
It came out of what I have learned as chairman of the Laureus World Sports Academy about using sport as a positive tool for social change. I thought that to be on the track aged 48 I could be a motivation for people – anyone from a paraplegic or a mentally retarded person to someone who is 55 years old and has been overweight for 20 years and wants to start working out again. Or someone who is in tip-top shape and just wants to do better. I could be an example, to show that if you have goals you should go for those goals regardless of what people may say or whatever constraints you may have. No one thought a 48-year-old could run the kind of times I know that I can run. Of course, it’s up to me to show that I can.
>> What examples have you seen where sport has been a motivation for social change?
I’ve seen people use it to improve themselves both physically and mentally, conditioning their body and using that to push their mind further than they thought it could go. Laureus runs loads of projects around the world where this is happening. There’s a project in Morocco that uses handball, basketball and volleyball to educate village women about health and nutrition and help them to build self-belief and independence in a country where participation in sport has traditionally been limited to men.
And there’s the Mathare Youth Sports Association in Nairobi. Mathare is one of the largest and poorest slums in Africa. The MYSA is a soccer league where youngsters are encouraged to raise their self-esteem and sense of well-being. I went down there last year. One of the most impressive things was that the head of the association was a 15-year-old girl. If you have one kid who can be an example, then others will want to do the same thing. …
Moses competed before my time (for now, at least) so the only sense of his skill, apart from his impressive stats, is what my mom always said about him: “He was beautiful to watch. Poetry in motion. Like a machine,” and the like. He certainly has no lack of confidence either!
What’s especially inspiring is how he balances academic excellence with physical prowess. I think most people are put off by block-headed jocks; but I’m equally put off by the supposedly opposite mentality of the sportless bookish bohemian. The original dean of the University of Chicago, where I went for my first year of undergrad, was (in)famous for saying (in so many words), “Whenever I get the urge to engage in some outdoor activity, I hurry to my study and repose with a book until the frivolous impulse passes.” Makes. me. want. to. puke.
I said jocks and sportless bohemians are “supposedly” opposites because they are, in fact, only two sides of the same thing, two victims of the same error. Although they use different means, and very different words, to do it, both grunting jocks and pulseless geeks sever the elemental unity of the human person. On the one hand, jocks tackle and bury the intellect with a façade of brawny mass. On the other hand, the bad geeks smother our sheer vital corporeality beneath dusty rags of lifeless introspection. In more classical terms this amounts to sacrificing either the Dionysian (jockish) or Apollonian (geeky) elements of life; in street terms it means being all body but no brains, or vice versa. In any terms it’s a sad sight.
The problem for the jock is that by stifling the life of the mind he is, as current medical science indicates, literally stifling the life of the body as well. Prolonged mental sloth directly, if not instantaneously, devolves into increased physical sluggishness. The eye of the mind keeps the coals of the body warm. Paradoxically, jocks are terrible athletes — because they are terrible persons. Jocks are agile but aimless semi-persons, headless hulks denying the fullness of their God-given nature.
The problem for the pale larval bohemian is similar. By sacrificing his body to the opaque fires of atrophy and stagnancy, he is shooting himself in the foot, or more accurately, the mind. The mind is not self-sustaining. It thrives on what it receives. (This reminds me of the main reason I detest Robin Williams’s *What Dreams May Come*, but I’ll spare you that rant… for now.) The mind needs a pulse, as a dancer needs a beat. Obviously the dancer is infinitely greater than the beat he uses; and yet he is lost without it. The mind can only adapt to and create from what comes to it. Self-consciousness, for example, is real only insofar as it is a consequential *gift*, an endowment, of being known by God, of being in relation to God, almost like an athlete knows his role only in the hands of a wise and benign coach.
The problem for the ruthlessly introspective bohemian — a creature I admit I’m often tempted to become — is that introspection is shallow and ephemeral without actual inspection — of the world, of other people, of the body and its limits. Knowing thyself in almost every case means knowing the world in concrete, lived, bodily ways just as well. Pardon the truism, but it’s so true: there’s more to wisdom than book-learnin’. There’s also tactile, sensual, jockish learning.
Any athlete, and perhaps especially any runner, can tell you some of the most sublime, lucid moments of introspection come to you while huffing and puffing and pacing in the heat of sport. You may recall one of the last images in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce is of the protagonist running, with ever-increasing speed and joy into a glorious celestial light. Being a Christian is a race with blinders towards God’s heavenly majesty. Heaven is a race without blinders into God’s infinite beauty. The Resurrection was the starting gun and the return of Christ is the final whistle. Let us run the race ahead of us with our eyes fixed on Him (see Hebrews 12)!
It may sound strange, but one of my most beautiful dreams about heaven, God give me the grace thereunto, is the hope of rowing. That’s right: I hope I can enjoy miles and miles of ivy-league-style regatta rowing (a sport I lived and loved for six years in middle and high school). If there’s anything to it, this may just amount to enjoying in a totally non-rowing fashion, the transcendent power I experienced many times while rowing. That is, I may get the transcendent glory without actually rowing. Which would be fine with me. (After all, who am I to complain about heaven?) In any case, there is something heavenly in sport; I’m quite confident there will something of sport in heaven. It’s truly awe-some to see Moses embody that wisdom of the whole person, made in the image of God. God bless him for using sport to help “the least of these.” That M.S. in exercise science is most definitely still in the bag for me.