"Hard work and dedication" is the trademark of the clean athlete. It is also the trademark of the cheating athlete; in fact, more so. This video will explain why "innocent until proven guilty" is both irrelevant and irrational.
I recently re-read "The Race Against Time" which outlines the sometimes friendly, sometimes contentious rivalry between Chris Boardman and Graeme Obree, arguably the best two time trialists on the bike during the '90s and both British. Two completely different riders with two completely different personalities and two different approaches to training. Boardman was always considered the scientist, creating a methodical, surgical strategy to training and racing; if it could be quantified, Boardman measured it. Obree, on the other hand, seemed to fly by the seat of his pants, riding minimally and completely by feel; he was either full gas or not riding. Boardman trained and raced to the numbers while Obree wanted to see just how deeply he could descend into the Pain Cave.
Two entirely different approaches. Yet, nearly identical results. In the individual pursuit on the track, 10-mile and 25-mile TTs on the road, and in the pursuit of the then romantic and prestigious hour record.
We all strive to find the best, most advanced approach to our training. Sometimes that's getting back to basics; sometimes it's buying in to the latest and greatest training tips. Sometimes it's spending countless hours on the internet looking for some reference to a super secret training method that Racer X used to conquer the world. We track heart rate, sweat rate, caloric burn rate, power, RPE, cadence, stride rate, stroke rate and anything else we can in order to find some sort of unknown visibility into that which either might be holding us back or propel us forward faster than ever before.
All of these things are important. To a degree. But without comprehension, the numbers are quite meaningless. I think we can all benefit from a greater comprehension of the signals the body is providing us with. More data does not mean more knowledge, nor does it equate to the ability to turn that data into actionable and better outcomes than if we did not have it. Athletes suffer from a syndrome of training to the numbers while tuning out the body's signals.
I'm prone to wonder how much less effective our training would be if we ditched all the numbers and just trained by feel. How long or short would it take to become proficient at it? How much confidence would we have in a back to basics approach? How many of us would be willing to go off the grid? Does going off the grid scare the Hell outta you? Would training be more enjoyable if we set ourselves free?
Some of my most enjoyable training sessions are those in which I have no expectations or measurement, yet from which I derive plenty of challenge, fulfillment and fitness benefit.
Think about it ...
Endurance athletes train really hard. Regardless of what methodology they use, or whether they work with a coach or train themselves, they demonstrate tremendous dedication to their sports. The challenge is that we’ve become a society of immediate gratification and we expect no less from our training. When new athletes come to me and ask, “How much faster can you make me in 3 months?” I tell them they are asking the wrong question. Growth takes time; it takes patience. If we allow for this, the gains will be well worth the wait.
Here are some nuggets to keep in mind as you hit this Winter with brimming motivation as you prepare for 2021 and what will hopefully be a return to some semblance of regular racing.
Progress does not occur daily nor is linear
Just as your training should ebb-and-flow, so, too, will your progress. Rather than looking for every day to get better and better, instead look for general upward trends in your fitness, strength, endurance, speed and performance. Even if you do everything right, some days will feel like you’re regressing rather than progressing. Other times, gains will be nearly impossible to measure, while still other times you will notice you’ve taken a big leap forward. All of this is natural and all of this is part of the process.
The best advice I can provide here is to not emotionally attach yourself to the results of your training, especially on a short-term scale. Sometimes the progress doesn’t even show up in your training but shines through in your racing. Don’t allow your confidence to be shaken by completely natural fluctuations in your day-to-day training performances.
Gradually increase your training volume
We are a generally fit bunch. So, we believe that because we are already in shape that we can start piling on the training and that will make us more fit and better athletes. The problem here is compounded by all of the fairly terrible “training secrets of the pros” articles that inundate us all. We see the impressive workouts or training volume of the pros and aspire to all that. Or, we think that there’s no way we could ever train like that so there’s no hope of ever being able to complete, say, an Ironman or a marathon. Either way, it’s a skewed perspective that needs to be adjusted to conform to reality.
Patience is key here. So is perspective. Rarely does a training article pull back and let us know how certain workouts need to be incorporate into an overall training plan, or what comes the day before and the day after the key workouts about which we’re reading. It is also challenging for athletes to appreciate the fact that the majority of pro athletes do not have other jobs. Their jobs are to train and race. So, while you’re waking up at 0-dark-30 to do your first workout and then complete your second one before a late dinner because in between you’re working hard at the office, the pro athlete is training hard but also recovering, resting up, getting massage and so on. In other words, you’re continuing to spend energy while the pro is conserving it. Gaining fitness takes time. Rushing the process or aspiring to train like a pro when your lifestyle can’t support that physical investment will only serve to detract from your ability to achieve your goals.
Mix up your training
You always hear to “train your weaknesses”, or “train to your weaknesses and race to your strengths.” While I do not necessarily agree with these statements, I do agree with the underlying principle of both. That is, focus on various aspects of training to create more well-rounded stimulus so your body adapts in ways it otherwise might not. Taking the Ironman example from above, if you only put in mega miles to prepare for the race, you’re ignoring other key aspects such as structured intervals. Sure, you will be able to “go long”, but you may not be able to do it very quickly. By complementing the long workouts with speed work, intervals and tempo work, you will be able to cover the Ironman distance more quickly.
Mix up your workouts. A graph of your weekly training should look like an EKG readout, with peaks and valleys representing different training intensities. If you tend to flat line your training, always going at a certain speed, well … we know what flat lining leads to, right?
The Winter is the ideal time to try new things. We’re motivated, our first races are months away and, thus, we do not feel the stress associated with “getting it wrong” like we do when our goal race is a mere few weeks or days away. Look at your last season, dissect your training and provide yourself with an honest assessment of what you did well, but also where you can see room for improvements. Then, attack those areas and shore them up. Try new things. Ask yourself, “What if I did this, that or the other?”
Challenge yourself to think outside the box. This is why coaching is so fun to me – seeing opportunity rather than fear when it comes to trying new things in less than conventional ways. Adopt a little innovation to your own approach and you could hit next season a notch or two better than you were in the past. One thing is for sure – if you don’t do anything differently, then you shouldn’t expect different results.
"I'm not here to go 5:01."
My answer when my wife, Lori, asked how I was feeling and what I thought I could do as we walked from the car to the track. A couple people had planted separate seeds in me, unbeknownst to them. That being the goal of running a sub-5:00 mile at 52 years old. Not a 1,500 converted. Not 1,600. The full 1,609. It was never on my radar, not something I had even contemplated. But, given the wonkiness of 2020 and the cancellation of the long trail races I had wanted to do, a novel, invigorating challenge seemed like a great substitute.
'The Jericho Mile' is a 1979 made for TV movie starring Peter Strauss. Strauss kills his stepsister-raping dad and is sent to prison. He runs in the prison yard and shows natural ability. A local training guru is called in to coach him at the warden's request, with the goal of Strauss running in the US Olympic Trials. The prison yard is transformed into a regulation track. The parole board denies Strauss the opportunity to run at the Trials. He listens to the race on the radio, heads out to the yard and, running solo and without fanfare, runs faster than the Trials winner.
Today would be my Jericho Mile. Just me and the track. No pacers, no cheat shoes, not stadium energy -- just me and the watch.
I did some research and, while I could not find much, I did ascertain that about a dozen 50+ folks accomplish this any given year. How many are the same vs brand new to the club, I don't know. I also don't know how many do it at altitude. I did find that ex-CU runner and Boulderite Dan King ran 4:57.29 on the road here in Boulder earlier this year. Dan is 61, which makes his time a phenomenal feat. He later ran 4:49.08 at sea level in South Carolina, on the CIU mondotrack, hailed as one of the fastest tracks in the country. Just, wow.
I don't know much about time conversions in running. But, given my extensive swimming background, I remember geeking out on yards-to-meters and meters-to-yards, and short course-to-long course and long course-to-short course conversion rates. So, I understand the concept. Accordingly, running a mile at a little over a mile in altitude creates about a 5.5-second handicap over running at sea level. From my perspective, it would be all about the raw finish time. It would be sub-5 at altitude and at the full 1,609m distance or it wouldn't be, any sort of handicap or conversion be damned. Black-and-white, no grey.
My running had been feeling pretty good when I decided to commit to this. I hadn't run in any serious way in 20+ years, having instead focused on cycling. Given the time it would take to prepare, I fast tracked another goal of mine, to do the Peak Traverse, a 17-mile run with about 6,000ft elevation gain over the Boulder Front Range's 5 highest peaks. The next weekend, I checked it off, but not without impact. My legs imploded and created some lower leg issues I had to let heal. I upped the gravel riding to keep the fitness going, slid out on some single track, landed on a rock and broke a handful of ribs. Not the best way to start attacking a goal.
For a handful of weeks, I did what I could and nothing that caused undue pain. Interestingly, the stair machine was mostly fine, as was easy cycling on a stationary bike. Even certain strength exercises were tolerable (most were not). My first run back was only about 4 miles at close to 9:00 pace; that's all the ribs would tolerate and, afterwards, I felt like I had been hit by a truck. I nearly pulled the plug right there. But, slowly and steadily, things improved. Finally able to do most anything I wanted, I decided it was time to commit to the sub-5 goal. I planted a stake in the ground 5 weeks out. I was then, or wait until Spring 2021.
My training consisted of 6 runs a week and multiple strength sessions. 2 fast runs, 2 short easy runs, and 2 aerobic runs roughly an hour in length. If the legs felt beat up, I would substitute a stationary bike ride on that day. My fast sessions were limited to The Golden Rule set of 8-10x400 at goal mile pace with 1-2 minutes rest between. This set has been around for decades and is apparently a solid indicator of mile potential. Given I had 5 weeks, I decided to dive right in and start with 10 reps, shooting for 1:15 splits and taking equal recovery jogs between. It took 2 sessions to lock into pace vs effort and stabilize my 400 times. I then got faster the next 2 sessions and hit 1:12-1:13. For the final 2 sessions, I slowed it down to 1:14-1:15 and focused on learning what "float" felt like. I also gradually dropped the number of repeats over the weeks down to 6. The final week-and-a-half, I ditched the 400s for 1,009m time trials. One per session for 3 sessions, crossing the line as if I still had 600m to go and asking myself, "Could you run this pace another 600m?" I'll be honest, only during the last time trial did I answer it as "Probably." The first two, it was "Probably 200, maybe 300 more. Not 600." I was hoping "race day jitters" would carry me through to the end. The encouraging aspect, though, was that I was completely locked into 5:00 pace. Even with the extra 9 meters, I was hitting 3:07.5 each time trial. This helped with the confidence that I could do it.
Breaking 5:00 is simple, but it's not easy. It's a straightforward math equation: hit 1:14.5 for each 400m + under 2 seconds for the additional 9 meters. Simple. But, getting to the line with the fitness and the body suppleness to carry it out ain't easy. As I healed up from breaking my ribs, my body was clearly overcompensating and protecting itself from my continued abuse. My hamstrings were not at all pleased, nor were my calves or feet. I couldn't get adjustments, which I clearly needed, so I relied on an overabundance of massage work once I was able to lie on the table pain free. Still, while the legs relaxed and opened up, the hamstring attachment way up under the glute on my left side would not relent. It was a tendonitis pain, not a pull. So, then the math equation became related to time on a calendar rather than time on a track -- could I withstand another few weeks of training in order to make it to the track? I didn't know, but I wasn't going to pull the plug just yet.
The week of the attempt, I didn't sleep well. Par for the course, my body's way of processing nerves and preparing for what it knew was coming -- deep access to the fight-or-flight response. The final 2 nights I slept better and awoke feeling fresh and ready to give it a go today. My hamstring attachment was still angry, but also telling me I had permission to give it an honest whirl.
Given this was my first attempt at this, all I needed to do was hit 4:59.99. This wasn't about setting a PR. It was about setting down a marker for future years' attempts. My wife wanted to provide moral support, as did my best friend, Andy. Ultimately, I relented and invited them to come watch the fun unfold. As I warmed up, I was encouraged and energized by their presence on the infield. It would still be a Jericho Mile.
I knew the risk would be going out too fast. My fitness was good but not great, so if I put myself in a hole too quickly, I'd vapor lock and experience a glorious implosion. Still, my first 409m was 1:14 followed by a 1:13 split. I was 2:28 at the 809 mark, arguably too fast. The third lap exposed the chinks in the armor. With 500m to go, flashes of the old 1min maximal ramp tests on the cycling erg were pulled from the dark recesses of my brain. Inevitably, with about 90 seconds left in the ramp test, you start making a deal with the devil -- get through the next 30 seconds, hit the next ramp and then sell your soul to get through that last full minute. With 500m to go, this is the bargaining I started to make. I had to fight back the urge to really engage my upper body. I went through 1,209m in 3:43, a split of 1:15.3. Andy, a former runner and fantastic athlete in his own right, shook his head at Lori. It was going to be close.
With 300m to go, my upper legs started burning and my economy started flagging. The implosion was beginning.
With 200m to go, I had no idea how I was going to make it to the finish at speed. A panic took over -- "You're NOT here to go 5:01!". I engaged my arms and pumped them furiously.
With 100m to go, Lori came running toward me on the infield, shouting words of encouragement to get me to the finish line. I recall with about 50m to go realizing my left hamstring hadn't liked me very much the past 4-plus minutes. I leaned for the line and stopped my wrist watch, fumbling to find the stop button and hitting it a stride past the mark. Andy had 2 stop watches and stopped them both.
4:59.71 (my belated stop)
By any measure, mission accomplished.
Now that things have started to lift on sports a little bit regarding the Covid pandemic, there's been a sort of mad panic to get back at it. To make up for lost time. To create certainty during the continued uncertainty, through the structured training athletes do to get race ready. Because what is more certain and structured than the training plan to prep for a race?
Endurance athletes, especially Masters athletes, train too hard. I’ll define “endurance” as any event lasting an hour or more. So, this encompasses a broad range of athletes, from cyclists to half-marathoners and marathoners, to every triathlete on this planet (not to mention all the other endurance sports out there, like cross-country skiing). We have been done a disservice on multiple fronts, not the least of which is by the vast majority of coaches out there who espouse repeated bouts of interval training per week or prescribe a large volume of interval training on their athletes’ hard days. The premise is that we get faster by training harder. This is true – to a very finite point. In order to better understand how we can extract more from our training and how to best balance aerobic with anaerobic efforts, it’s first important to understand how the body works.
At a high-level, there are 3 energy systems from which the body draws during any exercise of any duration and any intensity – phosphate, lactate and aerobic. Phosphate is mainly leveraged in all out efforts lasting up to 30sec but typically falling in the 3-10sec range. Lactate gets produced in greater quantities the closer we get to our LT (Lactate Threshold) and when we exercise above it. Lactate is a fuel source, a byproduct of our effort that our body processes more quickly than it is produced until such time as we hit and cross our LT. The aerobic energy system is when carbohydrate burning is slowed (but not stopped) and we recruit some stored fat as fuel because we are training or racing at an effort that is well below our LT.
Even 5k runners use predominantly the aerobic energy system -- as high as 93%. We really don’t elicit a high anaerobic utilization until we dip below 2min in effort, and leveraging a higher percentage of lactate for fuel instead of aerobic energy does not even occur until a 400m all out effort – something that lasts well under a minute. O2 is the fuel of muscles, and it takes about 30sec for the O2 we breathe in to be put to use. People think the O2 is used immediately because when they hold their breath for a long time and the lungs start burning, they take another breath and feel instant relief. But that relief actually comes from expelling CO2, not inhaling O2. A build-up of CO2 -- because we can't inhale enough O2 to replace it -- is what becomes the limiter with higher intensity performance. When CO2 production outpaces our ability to intake fresh O2, there’s a cascading effect with higher lactate production and other internal triggers that tip us further into an anaerobic state (if you wonder why athletes blood boost, look no further than this explanation. More blood equals more O2 being carried to the working muscles, which in turn equals more capacity).
So, on the one hand, it is imperative we become aerobically efficient. We do this by tuning our aerobic system so we have a turbo engine rather than a lawnmower engine. By focusing on fat utilization, aerobic training, we can push out metabolic triggers that start tipping us toward anaerobic system/fuel utilization (lactate, phosphate). When these triggers are ultimately pulled, carb utilization speeds up and we burn through muscle glycogen faster. Hence, the more aerobically efficient we are, the longer our muscle glycogen lasts. Also, the less our muscles fatigue, the longer our muscle neurons fire properly and spare us from potential cramping (IMHO, cramping isn't dehydration or salt loss; it stems from fatigue that keeps the muscles from firing properly).
Here's the rub. Part of our ability to become more aerobically efficient (more O2 to the working muscles) gets stimulated by bouts of high intensity training, especially VO2max efforts (lasting up to a handful of minutes). Higher intensity training forces the body to create more plasma and red blood cells, which in turn saturates the blood with a higher amount of O2. Think of a VO2max training block when the first workout of 3min intervals leaves you heaving and out of sorts. After a few weeks, the 4-5min intervals are hard and very taxing, yet there is also a sense that the body is settling in to them. This is due to the adaptation just mentioned.
The key is to stimulate thru high intensity enough, but not too much. Too much high intensity disrupts your ability to make that internal metabolic shift to being more aerobically efficient. Bike racers can dig deep and throw down attack after attack at the end of a 5+ hour race not because they do a lot of anaerobic training but rather because they are so aerobically efficient that when it's "go time", they have the muscle glycogen reserves to support those efforts and their muscle neurons are not too fatigued so cramping typically isn't an issue either. Next time you watch a bike race or mountain stage of the Tour, instead of focusing on the strongest rider, instead focus on those in the front group who inevitably start to fall away. Watch the change in their body language as steam and smoke start to inevitably pour out from under their hoods like a car overheating on the side of a desert road.
The aerobic focus -- and strict adherence to the parameters of those workouts (L2 watts, HR maxed at 70-78%) is what allows you to compete in a multi-hour race at a very consistent effort and pace. That's aerobic efficiency. It is the complement of the high intensity work -- a little but not too much -- which allows your finish time to be considerably faster than they would otherwise be. The body is a potpourri of response to stimuli. This training stuff would be so much simpler if it weren't, if instead it was more the case of pulling one lever or another to elicit the precise response we want. But, then, I'd be out of a coaching job.
So, when you think about your own training or the training program your coach has you doing, what percentage of time is spent doing intervals at SST or greater intensity? If it is consistently more than 10% per week, it’s too much. When we look at our lactate production curve, the biggest limiter to performance is how fast we can go before the curve starts to steepen up and to the right – meaning, when lactate production starts trending toward a greater amount being produced than can be processed causing the body to pretty quickly shut down. The longer the “tail” of our lactate curve, the more aerobically efficient we become and, thus, the faster we also become.
It should be pretty obvious that a return to national or international racing here in 2020 almost assuredly will not be happening. Here are just two examples to consider: the Boston Marathon and the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii. Boston's opening up has been pushed back to September 7th -- coincidentally, a week before the already-rescheduled race. To the public and racing community, the race director is very bullish on the race happening the following week. However, ask him off-the-record what he really thinks and you'll probably get an answer akin to "Chances are slim to none, and Slim just left town." For Ironman, Hawaii already has a trend of zero new Covid-19 cases. The island state is one of the safest places on the planet. Yet, extreme nativism is digging in and taking root. There's a faction that does not want to open the state back up to other USA citizens, let alone the rest of the world. If nothing else, weeding through this will slow down the dominoes falling in a return to normalcy.
But, larger scale, here's why big races won't be occurring in 2020. Opening things back up at a local level -- forget about larger scale -- will happen iteratively. Using Boston as the example, let's say the city does materially open back up by September 7th. Raise your hand if you believe a week later that 40,000 runners from around the world and about one million spectators will be allowed to congregate. What we are seeing and hearing is a lot of trying to think out-of-the-box to find a way that an event could happen. I commend the effort, but the execution of the ideas presented just isn't tenable.
So, it's time to relax. Stop focusing on trying to remain race-ready for the magical day the world opens back up. Instead, turn your attention back to the basics and be disciplined enough to shore them up. Challenge yourself to let go of what will almost assuredly be the empty promise of a return to racing national and international events in 2020.
As endurance athletes, we’ve largely lost our way, being fooled by very compelling – and expensive – marketing tactics and strategies. We’ve been tricked into believing that by focusing on the shortcuts we will reach new heights previously deemed unattainable. That we must focus on sharpening the tip of the spear. And, if we don’t, then we will fail at our own peril. Think of building a house. The structure itself can be constructed of all the latest-and-greatest materials and have all the modern efficiencies possible. But, if that house is built without a foundation, then it will fall apart like a house of cards at the first strong wind or storm. For example, if you’re not sleeping enough (foundational), then no superfood or magical supplement is going to provide you with more energy or better performances.
And, here’s another dose of reality. For the vast majority of endurance athletes, focusing on the final 1-2% at any time is immaterial. They don’t matter at all. Unless you are already at the top of the athletic pyramid where 0.5-1% is all that stands between winning and finishing off the podium, then obsessing over the minutia does us little to no good. Rather than spend $1,000 or more on the fastest, most cutting edge wetsuit to shave time off your triathlon swim, choose to work on your stroke technique to gain efficiency and log more time in the pool to increase your endurance. Because then the $300 wetsuit will serve you just fine (really, it will). For the same type of analysis on the bike, you can read another article I wrote on the Cost v Benefit of Aero Equipment.
Now is the perfect time for endurance athletes to shift their focus to the structural foundation of what they do – to the 98-99%. In fact, in our lifetimes there has never been a more perfect time to do so. The more solid your foundation, the more you will be able to build upon it.
The biggest challenge is that we exist in a world of immediate gratification. The gadgets and the hacks and the super secrets of the pros are very attractive because they provide us with the promise of shortcuts. Why train multiple sessions a day and put in many hours of dedicated work every week if instead we are promised the same results in less than half the time? Where the argument of the quick fix falls down is that it assumes or even portends that innovation and creativity occur in the absence of a basic foundation, when in fact it is precisely that foundation which unlocks the power of the innovation. The foundation is prior or existing knowledge; the innovation is a potential iteration of that foundational knowledge. See what I mean?
If your diet is terrible, then the best supplement in the world will only start to make up for the holes in your diet plan. It sure won’t boost your performance. If you heel strike and hunch over like Quasimodo when you run, better to work on your form before you invest in expensive shoes. If you ride an ill-fitting bike, then you must first address your position before you slap on a set of $2,000 race wheels. Yet, we are programmed to do the complete opposite. We look for improvements in all the wrong places. Because the investment of money is so much easier to rationalize than the investment of time.
To be clear, nearly all endurance athletes are not at a point in their progression where worrying about the 1-2% makes any sense. You must first master your craft before you focus on becoming the best-of-the-best. It is in that pursuit of ultimate excellence when focusing on the minutia will yield measurable return. Understand the basics and why they are important. Nail them. Come back to them frequently.
This path is very simple to both find and follow – sleep more; eat whole, real food; train consistently and tick all the energy system boxes. The problem is that the best advice isn’t sexy. It’s not sleek and shiny and full of buzzwords. So, it doesn’t sell.
Which is unfortunate.
I don’t mean physically tired, but rather mentally. Not in a futility sort of way, but rather an “I can’t believe some people can be in such foolish denial” sort of way. Specifically, around our sporting heroes, favorite teams and favorite sports.
There’s a broad spectrum when it comes to belief. On one end, you have a group that is supremely cynical and which might say something like, “Every elite athlete cheats. They’re all on PEDs.” On the other end of the spectrum, you have a group that is so starry-eyed and naïve that it might say something like, “(My favorite team/athlete) is achieving success through so much hard work and wanting it more than the competition. Their system is better.”
Both ends of the spectrum are incorrect. On the spectrum of cheating, from 0% to 100% of athletes being cheaters, the only statistical percentage we know for a fact is not possible is 0%. That said, it is very, very highly improbable that all elite athletes are cheating; we just can’t prove that all are not cheating.
So, why am I mentally tired? Because people are more apt to believe in fairy tales than they are to apply scrutiny. We are inclined to apply a filter of nationalism or tribalism to any scrutiny we do apply to athletes or teams or sports. Rather than taking a step back and looking at a situation objectively, most people apply whichever filters they choose that will result in the narrative which provides them comfort, which allows them to put the performances in question into a neat, tidy box to be filed away and forgotten.
Well, this isn’t how sports works. If we strip away the filters and the biases, and really strive to look at elite sports with an objective eye, the problem is that we won’t like what we see.
The biggest misconception is that athletes are innocent until proven guilty. The problem is that sports is not subject to the same justice system as typical societal crimes. A failed drug test results in a ban for a period of time and sometimes a fine. There are more cases of athletes not failing drug tests yet being doped to the gills than can be counted. There is a growing number of retroactive positives in frozen samples when athletes’ A samples showed up negative, indicating at the time the popped athletes were doping in an at-the-time undetectable manner. There are well-known periods of “glowing” – the window of time during which athletes would test positive because the drugs are still in their system – that athletes and their doctors have mapped out so the athletes’ systems are clean come the time for competition. The actual anti-doping tests are woefully inept at being current and all-encompassing to catch cheats in the first place. Athletes and teams are gaming the anti-doping and TUE systems, exploiting loopholes through which you could drive a semi truck. Even in the case of professional cycling, when athletes release their power data or physiological test results, we see a snapshot in time or a sloppily-performed test protocol that renders the data itself completely and utterly useless. And on and on.
We should put zero credence in passing doping tests. Multiple studies are showing that a far greater percentage of elite level athletes are doping than what people are willing to admit. On the low end, around 45-50% is accepted; on the high end, 65-70%. So, half to two-thirds of elite level athletes in a given sport are very likely cheating. So, tell me how or why we should care about negative drug test results. We should not.
“But where’s your proof? If you don’t have proof, then shut the hell up and crawl back in your hole!” Yep, I’ve been told variations of this many a time. I’ve even been personally disparaged when I suggested Masters athletics is no less dirty than elite level sports. I’ve been told I suck as an athlete and am a whiner because anyone who beats me must be a doper. Nothing could be farther from the truth and this sort of personal attacking also speaks directly to the ignorance of those taking issue with my skepticism. These folks know nothing of my own sporting history or palmares, and they tend to sit on the far end of the “belief spectrum” where unicorns prance and leprechauns shower the rainbow-splashed hills with gold. And that’s OK. Believe what you will. But to personally attack me – aside from me not caring – only weakens a person’s argument. To think that Masters athletes are as clean as the driven snow or that “less than 1% of us cheat” (as one critic fired back at me), demonstrates the tribal lens through which my critics are viewing all this. To be clear, I’m all for healthy debate and open dialogue. The more this type of stuff is discussed – with open minds – the better. But this requires that we take off our tinted lenses and open up our eyes.
The burden of proof lies with the athletes and teams. Full stop. We should not believe athletes who say we should trust them. We should not believe athletes who say they have not failed a drug test or will never fail a drug test. We should not believe athletes who say they have done nothing wrong. If anything, these types of statements require us to apply even more scrutiny and skepticism. We should absolutely look at “alien-like” performances and “once in a lifetime” athletes with a raised eyebrow and shake of the head. Because if it is too good to believe, then we should not believe what we’re seeing.
Why? Because we’ve heard and seen it all before. What many people don’t seem to comprehend is that patterns are proof. History repeats itself and, in the case of cheating in sports, over and over and over again. Cover ups for positive doping tests happen quite literally all the time. Athletes have forever not failed drug tests while absolutely doping. TUE submissions have skyrocketed; it is as if elite-level sports is now the stomping ground of medical invalids. In cycling, the team trains annihilating all comers on mountain stages of the Tour de France during the EPO era have eerily returned. Mountain climbers being able to time trial as well as time trialists, and time trialists being able to hold their own on the climbs is another EPO era redux.
In any sport, we have been told to believe that “clean can beat doped” and that the best in the world are even faster than known dopers who served bans and returned to competition – as if doped athletes rely solely on the PEDs to propel them to victory. One has to look no further than a “Top 10 Times of All-Time” to see how many red lines can be drawn through known cheats. And, when those athletes are stripped out, there are still more who need to be, but we leave them in the “clean results” because they’ve never failed a drug test. We see power numbers in cycling creeping ever closer and even up to the EPO era values. We see NBA players looking like NFL linebackers. We see elite level mid-packers transform into world best performers at an age when their lot in life had already been cast. We see athletes who served multi-year doping bans return to competition, supposedly clean now, and they are bigger, faster and stronger than ever before – yet without the drugs this time. Apparently.
And this is just barely scratching the surface of it all!
There are no new super secret ways to train; there really aren’t. Sports science has not progressed by leaps and bounds. Technological disparities between athletes and teams are non-existent. One athlete’s coach or one team’s R&D and access to doctors is no better than another’s. At the tip of the spear, we look at a fraction of a percentage of difference in physical ability across the top athletes in a given event or position or sport. A coach may direct one athlete to be the world best. Maybe even two. When that coach is directing a cadre of athletes or an entire team to the pinnacle of an event or sport, that is such a huge red flag. Yet, few apply the skepticism. Instead, we label these coaches as “transformative” or “masterminds”. Look at the coaches who are linked to a list of world best athletes and you will be looking at a dodgy system. This is not to say a team cannot be greater than the sum of its parts. However, if the majority of team members are punching above their weight, that’s a surefire red flag.
All of this and much more has occurred over the past multiple decades, so what is the basis for believing all of this is not occurring today? Because omerta is strong and the pundits tell us so? Because athletes tell us their particular sports are cleaner now than ever before? Why? Seriously – WHY? There are ZERO rational answers.
And we haven’t even gotten to the inherent spiderweb of corruption infiltrating top-level sport – from the IOC to the world governing bodies to the national governing bodies to the who-is-connected-to-whom-and-what-protection-does-that-connection-offer, and more.
So, do we just roll over and accept that this is the way of the world? We should not. Blatant cynicism cannot overcome our desire to aspire to clean sport. And, blatant naivete cannot overrule our ability to ask hard questions, pull back the rug and see what’s been swept beneath it. With the media largely acting as coddled, spoiled infants, indeed, it is society’s greater responsibility to apply the proper scrutiny to sport if the desire is for the status quo to change. Because until this occurs, rampant cheating will be the status quo.
The impact of Covid-19 on the world is both interesting and weird. In some respects, it's a universal response; in others, regional variances make it even more challenging to determine when we will start to see light at the end of the tunnel. Athletes are panicking in their training, continuing with race-specific work in a time of complete uncertainty. The return to racing is unknown, as is exactly how it will be ramped back in. Now is the time to take a step back, relax the reins a little bit, and find as much enjoyment as we can.