South Africa has become a centre for endurance addicts. We have the world’s largest open water swim event in Midmar Mile, the worlds largest Cycle race in the Pick n Pay Argus tour, the World’s largest Ultramarathon  in Comrades, and one of the leaders in the World in the Duzi Canoe Marathon.

With the exception of the swim, each of thee events demand a qualifying time over a similar endurance event, so we know the 70,000 plus entrant in thee events are also doing at least a few other long endurance events in their preparation for their goal. There are even a goodly number of endorphin junkies that will do at least 3 or more of these events (I know cos I have been one!)  – The attraction and public mystique that surrounds these events has created a ‘Bermuda triangle’ in any s[porting year, where talented participants are ‘sucked’ towards these’ goals’ only to be lost in the oblivion of race results.

This is not wholly unique to South Africa, but certainly the years of isolation have caused us to adopt an introverted approach to competing locally and tackling many events. The trouble is that this same ‘formula’ or approach has been adapted into virtually every aspect of our sport, no matter what level of competition.

Athletes attempt to conquer 3 or 4 marathons a year and also ‘crack’ into level’s that would give them international recognition. Even swimmers are expected to win on every occasion – how many overseas newspapers would carry a front page headline when their top swimmer was beaten by a younger talented swimmer in a meaningless local gala?  (Remember Penny Haynes being beaten by Sarah Pooe ) Our rugby, soccer and cricket players have some of the most demanding schedules in the world set by their respective administrations. And who feels the pressure when the performance doesn’t meet media and a hyped public expectation? The coach.
In virtually every case, when the chips are really down, our guys fail to perform to potential for two linked reasons – Firstly they have been broken down by the endless competition and secondly because the opposition have been ‘built up’ by adopting a more gradual application of training with adequate recovery.

In general the South African approach is to focus on training, becoming obsessed with how much they can squeeze in – and that applies at all levels from school, to international level. It just doesn’t seem right to be taking rest, and our isolation days militated against it.  All we have done now is to add in the international season to an already packed local fixture – Can anybody tell me when the soccer off-season is –or when our rugby players actually get a real break.
We will never produce the vast store of talented sportspeople that this country has to offer until the coaches, media, public and sportspeople re-educate ourselves on the basic principles of why we train.

Lets take a quick layman’s approach:
Our objective in training is to increase our capacity to do a particular aspect of our sport. In order to do this we ‘overload’ our current abilities in training (or at least stress them to high levels) so that they become used to this high level.
For instance, consider strength training; we lift a weight because we think it will make us stronger. The lifting of the weight actually damages the muscle causing many micro tears.  Then – just like a broken bone- if we leave it to heal long enough the muscle repairs and become even bigger so it can resist more weight the next time. However this growth didn’t happen during the lifting it happened during the rest period. (the same as the healing of the broken bone).  Similarly if we keep using the bone instead of having it in a cast, it never heals and becomes a constant breaking point and injury.  Unfortunately our obsession with constant competition and ‘winning’ has the same effect on our ability to perform – whether that be at international level or as individuals just trying to do our best in a chosen ‘goal event’ such as Midmar, comrades, Argus or the local fun run.

Clearly the answer is that the focus should be on the RECOVERY NOT THE TRAINING.  The training is only a mechanism for us to damage the muscles (or overstress another system) that are specifically used in our chosen sport, in order that we can give them the recovery period to grow stronger. If we could cause that muscle damage without training –even the better. The training is only the catalyst!

So now we need to look at how to get the most efficient RECOVERY. There are a few aspects to this. Firstly we have to let the muscle rest up (that’s why we put a broken bone in a cast), then we have to make sure that we have the nutrients and building blocks present for the muscle to rebuild. This latter point can be split into two sections – firstly eating or manufacturing the correct nutrients in the correct quantities and secondly ensuring there is sufficient circulation in the body to get those nutrients to the place of damage to do the job.

Circulation can be achieved through many means including massage, and light exercise.  Very light exercise is the easiest to do – but this is where our South African obsession for performance works against us. We try to do too much ‘ or ‘win’ on every occasion be that training or competition. So we end up putting more damage into the muscle instead of allowing it to rebuild. But you can’t only blame the competitor – the pressure from peers, the media, the selectors, and even trainers can be immense. Think only of parents who expect kids to swim to their best in training and in every gala. In truth some of these gala’s have no meaning in the overall scheme of things – but try telling that to the committed parent who is reliving his or her own dreams through their child. It’s the same at all levels. There must have been more than a few fitness trainers who knew that the best thing for some of the team players would simply be to take a month of easy exercise. But one cannot see a national body paying a fitness trainer to tell a sportsman to take 3 weeks of rest, massage and optimum diet!

Even the marketing companies work against us, they have brainwashed two sporting generations that we need carbohydrate for endurance events, which is certainly true, but does not tell the whole story. The fact is that carbohydrates (pasta, potatoes, banana’s etc) will NOT repair the muscle damage. For that we need proteins and we need high quality proteins and nutrients to do that efficiently.

The most frustrating aspect to the knowledgeable coach is that there are many talented sportspeople in every sport in South Africa failing to achieve anywhere near their potential just because they follow the crowd and ethos of ‘traditional training’ which is being handed down from ‘broken-down athlete to broken-down athlete’.  With a little more analysis, less pressure, and a more patient approach there are very few readers of this article who would not be surprised by just how good they could be.

Focus on your recovery not your training, to be stronger, faster, higher, or further.

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