RW vs Mo Farah

Back in 2010 our Editor Andy Dixon went head-to-head with Olympic Champion Mo Farah. Find out who came out on top in this running battle...

by Andy Dixon

Mo's weaknesses (yes, really!)

There’s another disappointment coming his way (albeit on a slightly smaller scale than not qualifying for an Olympic final) when we do the final two physical tests of the Run Check.

A balance test on a pressure plate shows Farah’s average forward/backward deviation is 2.4cm compared with my 1.4cm. “Mo’s static balance is quite poor,” says a surprised Fairthorne. “He’s wobbling backwards and forwards.” The test also shows Farah has less balance on his right leg compared with his left.

A treadmill-running analysis springs another surprise. Mo’s feet overpronate and his knees roll slightly inward as he loads his weight through his foot.

He wears orthotics to correct this, and Fairthorne recommends that he get them replaced. By contrast, Fairthorne says I have “a more neutral gait pattern than Mo. Your foot pattern is close to perfect.”

But my moment of glory is stopped short by a “but” – and it’s a big but. “You’re losing energy as you run,” says Fairthorne. While my gait looks good to the naked eye, the pressure plate analysis shows that I land on my midfoot, come back onto my heel, then move forward again into the toe-off. Fairthorne advises me to practise landing on my heels.

This seems to contradict a lot of research extolling the efficiency of a midfoot landing, but the evidence is there on the screen: the line showing my weight transfer has a zig-zag look to it – forward, back, forward. By contrast, Mo’s line is straight and direct – heel, midfoot, toe-off.  

Fairthorne explains: “Mo’s landing on his heel and moving through his foot in a very smooth manner. The most important thing is that you don’t lose force to the ground. But your running style has a ‘handbrake’ effect with each footstrike.”

While I was more stable than Mo when standing still, once in motion his balance is better – his stronger core offsets the deficiency in his natural balance. Like a thoroughbred horse, Mo’s body seems to be more at ease and reactive when he’s moving.

With the tests complete, Fairthorne advises us both on how we can improve our running. I need to work to strengthen my gluteal muscles to improve my core stability, and try to practise a heel-toe running pattern. He advises Mo to improve his balance by strengthening his weaker right leg with a series of single-leg lunges.

What makes an elite?

So, what have I learned from going toe-to-toe with an elite for a day? What really marks them out is flexibility and strength, rather than more obvious markers such asstamina.

“Mo is running 80 to 100 miles a week and the guy still has excellent flexibility, whereas most club or recreational runners are tight,” says Fairthorne. “He’s got a good power-to-weight ratio, which gives him the ability to run faster with less effort.”

On a mental level, his discipline and work rate shone through – it’s fair to say elite athletes have a capacity for application and self-sacrifice many of us simply don’t possess.

But hearing Mo’s challenges and his efforts to rectify them, there are more similarities than at first glance. He has experienced many of the same struggles as you and me in our running careers – balancing training with a social life, coping with disappointment and learning from mistakes – but he has worked hard to solve them. Nor is he biomechanically perfect – the test identifies issues where he can work to improve his running, and he says he intends to do so.

“Talent can only take you so far,” Farah says as we get ready to leave. “If you really want a gold, silver or bronze, you have to work hard. If I’ve found even one exercise today that will result in a fraction of a second’s improvement, it’s worth it.”

The message is the same for elite and amateur alike: train hard, rest properly, eat and sleep well, be dedicated to your sport, work on your weaknesses. Whether the goal is running a decent marathon (me) or chasing medals in the World Indoor and European Championships (Farah), do this over time, and the rest will fall into place.

Check your running fitness with five key biomechanical tests.

Go like Mo

Food: Ugali
“It’s maize meal. It’s got loads of carbs, and you make a kind of porridge from that in one pot, and in another pot you make a stew with onion, tomatoes, chicken, cabbage and vegetables. It’s really healthy – pure carbs and protein,” says Farah.

Recovery tip: Ice baths
“Ice baths work, it just depends whether you can put up with them! After my long run I’ll get into an ice bath for 10 minutes, then get into a hot bath after. You feel a lot better for it. Your muscles feel less tired. The same with a massage.”

Kit: Compression socks
“My calves get quite tight, so if you’re doing a lot of miles they can help.” According to a 2007 study in the Journal of Sports Sciences, wearing the socks during a 10K road run appeared to reduce delayed-onset muscle soreness.

The Bupa Fitness Assessment includes 13 tests to help you develop an action plan and get more from your training. It is available nationally at an introductory cost of £149.00. For more information call 0800 66 55 77.

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