THE CULT OF SPEED
I’M going to give you a knotty little problem to worry out on your own, and it’ll need all the thought you can give it. You can understand that, having been a runner, I look at athletics largely from a runner’s point of view ; but what I’m about to tell you applies not only to running but just as surely to all forms of athletics.
I’ve had many, some of them widely-known athletes, tell me that I am altogether wrong. They’re welcome to think so. It’s quite on the cards of course that I am mistaken, though that’s for you to judge after you’ve sifted the evidence, when I say that our practice at track, road and field athletics, not to mention other branches, has been based on a misconception right from the start of athletic history. Having got that off my chest you ought to be braced up for the shock, so I’ll proceed to deliver the goods. Here you are, then : I am convinced that it doesn’t help you in any way at any time to practise sheer speed, although that is what practically every athlete has been taught to do, and does ; actual racing in running, or all-out exertion in any other form of sport, should be confined solely to the competition for which you are training, and such events will be all the better if they are few and far between compared with what goes on nowadays.
Revolutionary ? Well, I suppose it is, particularly when you consider that it applies to EVERY form of sport, even sprinting.
But before you condemn it outright look into my reasons carefully and you will be in a better position to make a decision.
We’ve been brought up to regard speed as something which we lacked but which only needed practice to acquire ; a sort of “practice makes perfect ” affair ; and because the great bulk of our active exponents and teachers have been youthful—as soon as they ceased to be so they discontinued competitive athletics—no one has questioned it, and the teaching holds good today. But if you really pry into things quite a new field is opened up, so much so that an entirely different method of approach is indicated.
Man, as you’ve always understood, is a machine of sorts, no doubt a very complicated affair but he carries on like one all the same—you feed and repair a machine and it turns out energy. There may come a time when you want to work it at its utmost speed ; all that you ever learnt by experience and training has taught you that you will never get anywhere near that until you have removed every defect that is acting as a brake ; also, that to keep giving it speed trials is to keep on postponing its efficiency while consequent repairs and overhauls are undertaken. Apply all that in principle to your body and you’ve got precisely the picture I wanted to show you.
My idea of training for any form of athletics, and I followed it closely throughout my own career, is that first and foremost you should learn style ; learn at slow speed to acquire the necessary action without an atom of wasted movement so far as you can manage it, for good style and economy of action are one and the same thing. Unnecessary action is merely a persistent squandering of your abilities in so far as it consumes energy which could otherwise be used to promote speed. Which makes it evident that there’s no sense in attempting to go all out until you’ve removed such handicaps. When you’ve done so, or got anywhere near it, you will find the speed is there and doesn’t need practice ; it was there all the time but couldn’t be put into commission until every item of wasteful extravagance had been eliminated.
There’s another side to all this, too. Training at high pressure, which we seem to have thought was essential to success, must of necessity be strictly limited ; you can’t do very much of it or it’d make you stale. To guard against this trouble both books and coaches suggest a ” season,” after which you are advised to rest to give yourself a decent chance to recover. Because they encourage you to swing too high on one side they must balance matters by curtailing exercise on the other. Both these extremes are unwise and unnecessary ; it would surely be more sensible to cut super-intensive practice down by 20 per cent, instead, and then you’d have a very different picture. If you did that you could indulge to an extent which would only be limited by the energy at your command and the time at your disposal. The mere fact that by adopting this method you can devote so much more time .and energy to preparation means that you may expect to reap a corresponding increase in ability during the same period and, the season being extended to the whole year, no loss is occasioned by the ” rest period.” Besides, work of this sort banishes the bugbear of staleness as well as greatly reducing any tendency to strain,’ thus adding still further to your possibilities of improvement.
Every man-jack of us, like every other animal, is born with all the speed (in embryo) he is likely to require ; it has been built up-through all the countless centuries of our evolution. It developed just as the body did, and always reached its maximum at full maturity. In the case of mankind however, it has been so hampered and restricted by civilisation and its amenities—clothes, methods of travel, conditions of living and so on—that a good deal of learning is required to release even a part of what our prehistoric ancestors undoubtedly possessed. That they were altogether faster than we are there can be no doubt, according to the Darwinian theory, for otherwise legs would not still constitute so large a part of our entire physique.
All muscles respond similarly to the same treatment and what is proved to be good practice for any one set must be good in principle for all. When you learnt to talk undue haste was always deprecated ; your teachers knew well enough that, until you had perfected the minor details, any attempt at speed was a complete waste of time. Well, that applied to the muscles of your tongue, , and of course all others act in the same way ; the sole purpose of training is that you should learn to perform detailed action in the most efficient and economical manner, whether it’s with your tongue or your limbs.
From what I’ve already said you can see that speed depends entirely on the method, efficiency and duration of training, NOT on its intensiveness, for there are no short cuts in Nature and it’s nonsense trying to look for them.
You can get a useful simile by comparing the energy deposited in your system with your assets at the bank. In business, provided you’re constantly turning over your stock, adding a bit here and a trifle there as you go along, your bank will arrange for a considerable overdraft if a sudden demand makes it necessary. When you’ve built up an extensive connection it will back you to any reasonable limit. That’s what happens with your training and reserves of energy. Steady work of the right sort will provide you with a decent margin should a call in the shape of a competition arise ; while the man who has unbroken years of such preparation to rely on can tackle with serene confidence a task which would be either highly dangerous or hopelessly impossible to a partly-trained rival.
Your aim throughout, therefore, should be to avoid all maximum effort while you work with one purpose only : a definite and sustained rise in the average pace at which you practice, for that is the whole secret of ultimate achievement. This enables you to build up considerable reserves and to add continually to them. Speed trials are worse than useless ; they merely squander all your carefully-built up vim in order to convince you that it really was there, and in so doing put the clock back for weeks with regard to your condition. Any serious competition will, for the time being, deplete your reserves and if you attempt another before they are fully restored you’ll only disappoint yourself and everyone else. Among others, Ballington, the South African, discovered this for himself with a little experimenting, and in consequence wisely refrained from entering a marathon which he might, and probably would, have won, because it came too soon after his London- Brighton record run.
You must have noticed many such mistakes in modern athletics, for competing at unduly short intervals has been thoughtlessly overdone time after time. On the other hand there are those few outstanding men who refused to be caught in the trap, and whose every appearance in public could be relied on to reach a high class of achievement. The ultimate in speed, like the limit in everything else, is abnormal, and should be resorted to only on abnormal occasions ; to over-indulge by even a trifle is to skim the cream off your condition and deprive you of the success your training has so hardly earned.
If you’ve absorbed all the above you will understand better why I decry such things as time trials ; I am convinced that they are nothing but senseless waste of time and energy. What good are they anyway ? They can’t teli you any more than the race itself could. But they can, and will, drain your reserves and do so exactly at the most inopportune time — just when you are getting ready to test your abilities in a competition. The fact that you take a test of this sort makes it look as though you knew you were working in the dark and wanted to make a trial to see that all was really going well ; as though you simply couldn’t be sure about it unless you had actual and indisputable proof. That might be good enough for children but it certainly isn’t for thinking men, for they’re expected to have developed an intellect they can rely on. If you knew you were not using the best possible methods there might be some excuse, but as you are already satisfied that your work is about as good as you can make it you’ll get exactly that result when you race — the best you are capable of with regard to your present standard of training. Time trials ! I reckon they’re one of the evil things we’ve got to learn to do without ; they’re merely a way of heaving overboard all your earnings (reserves) to bolster up your self buoyancy at the moment, stupidly squandering what you’ve saved up for racing.
Yes, I know we’ve been brought up and taught to believe in such things and in maximum speed work for practice too — in our father’s time they were recognised as well-considered and proper procedure. But our fathers had already learnt that the semi-raw meat and corrective medicines of their fathers could be improved upon, and it’s high time we learnt to improve upon what our forbears were able to teach us. There is always better to be found if we look for it ; even the ” advanced ” views I’ve stated above, as many of the old-timers would dub them, though I think they are the best obtainable at the moment, will be pruned, pared down and brought nearer perfection, and possibly you’ll be one of those who help to do it. You’ve got to realise that training, like everything else in life, never ” stays put ” ; it must always be changing with the advance of time, and it’s up to you to use your reason to learn what you can so that you may initiate such changes as you yourself progress.
I don’t expect you, or anyone, to digest all this at a single gulp ; new ideas are sometimes awkward to assimilate off-hand. But if you think these matters out on your own and apply reason and commonsense, you’re sure to find points that can be very useful in your work. Follow them up in your own way and they will lead to enhanced progress.