Just how different are elite athletes to everyday runners in terms of their strength, flexibility and mentality?
Andy Dixon, an average runner in every sense, goes head-to-head with UK star Mo Farah to find out.
This article first appeared in our April 2010 edition.
I’ve got a more natural running style than Mo Farah. This is not a dream, in which I glide past Britain’s best middle-distance runner, plus a few Kenyans, to take the 5000m gold medal in front of an ecstatic home crowd at London 2012… and then wake up. This is real.
I am in the office of a leading biomechanics expert and, after watching us both run on a treadmill, he says that I have a more neutral gait than the European Indoor 3000m champion.
Farah laughs, and looks untroubled by the thought of coming off worse against an older and heavier opponent. And in every other biomechanical test we’ve done the 26-year-old has wiped the floor with me. So forgive me if I enjoy my small moment of triumph for a minute.
Elite vs average runner
We’re meeting to find out just how different elite athletes are to us everyday runners. Once you get past their kit sponsorship deals, freedom to train all the time and their liking for steamed vegetables, are there more similarities than we might imagine? Or are they simply born a different breed?
To find out, a decidedly average runner (me) and the country’s leading male middle-distance runner (Farah) have come to the Bupa Wellness Centre in London.
Here, under the eyes of musculoskeletal physiotherapist Simon Fairthorne, the two of us complete a Run Check to assess our flexibility, joint mobility, strength and core stability. I also speak to Farah to learn about the mindset and routine of an elite, and find out what us running mortals can learn from him and his ilk.
He’s got the power
The first thing I notice about Farah is his whippet-like runner’s build – he’s compact, extremely lithe and has comparatively long legs for his height (5’ 8”). I am taller, stockier and over four stone heavier, so my expectations for the first assessment – flexibility – aren’t high.
We each lie on our backs and lift one leg straight up while keeping the other against the floor. I creakingly reach 70 degrees, while Mo effortlessly raises his leg to a right angle. Fairthorne says this is the “gold standard that all male runners should aim for”. I’ll have to make do with bronze, then.
It’s the same with spinal flexibility – reaching with both hands to the floor from a standing position, I make it to my ankles. Mo pivots at the waist with gymnastic ease and touches his toes. So it’s round one to the elite, and a prescription of more frequent stretching, and mixing in yoga moves to my core workouts, for me.
On to joint movement and leg power. Fairthorne tests the range of movement of my hips and knees and identifies “early degenerative wear in the right knee”.
I dislocated my kneecap over a decade ago and my right knee makes a grinding sound when I flex it, so the evidence is all too audible. However, he says that my strong quads and hamstrings are protecting the joint. Farah aces all these tests.
The gulf in leg strength between amateur runner and elite is illustrated by the distance hop test – it takes me four thudding hops to cover six metres. By contrast, Mo, who is five inches shorter than me, springs across in three, making it look effortless.
Next up is the plank test to compare core muscle control. After 20 seconds my mid-section starts to tremble as my muscles fatigue, and while I’m able to hold the position for the full minute, my core is working hard to keep my hips from dropping. By contrast, Mo is so steady you could serve tea and biscuits on his back and not spill a drop.
As if further proof were needed, an ultrasound analysis shows Mo has an exceptional ability to isolate his transverse abdominis muscle. This is the deepest core muscle that runs from the front part of the hip bone to the lowest rib. It keeps the pelvis stable during running and is connected to the diaphragm, which helps with inhalation.
When contracted, the width of Mo’s transverse ab is 0.83cm, compared with my 1.04cm. Again, when looked at against my extra height and weight, it demonstrates the athlete’s exceptional power-to-weight ratio.
The Kenya effect
If this was a boxing match, by now I’d be flat out, reeling after comprehensive knockouts in the opening flexibility, leg power and core strength rounds. In the short break as Fairthorne sets up the next test, I try to get inside my opponent’s head. Exactly what does it take to get to his level?
A huge amount of discipline and dedication is the answer. He takes just two weeks off from training each year, usually at the end of the outdoor season in September. Think about that as you arrange your four or five weeks of annual leave.
And that’s not all: “I train two, sometimes three times a day,” he explains. “That’s including a gym session three times a week, but mainly two runs per day, then every 10 days or so I’ll take a day off.”
Farah says the experience of living with Kenyan athletes contributed to this focus. For the last two years he has gone to Kenya early in the year for warm-weather training. The beneficial effects of last January’s trip could clearly be seen when he broke the UK indoor 3000m record twice shortly after returning to Britain.
“Spending last winter there worked well for me,” he says. “I learnt a lot about what it takes to be a great athlete,” he says. “All I did was sleep, eat, train. But it’s something that I enjoy.”
In case you think Farah is merely a running robot with an appetite for self-sacrifice hard-wired into his brain, he admits he has had to work at it.
“I used to play football, and trained only when I felt like it,” he says. “I’d go out a lot, eat fast food, go out for curries. It’s those little things that I have cut down on. I’d go too hard on my runs and not recover properly. One thing the Kenyans taught me was to train hard, but to rest between sessions. It’s not about doing your 10 miles, then going out for a few drinks and coming home late. It’s eat, sleep, train.”
This comes as a bit of a blow to someone like me, who has been known to follow a long run with a few celebratory pints and a steak dinner.
Live running, love running
Having learned the value of hard work, he loves training – he says speedwork sessions of 20 x 400m are “fun”, while “long runs are probably one of the easiest things. It’s usually a Sunday run, so I get it out of the way in the morning and I’ve got the rest of the day to relax.”
Mondays and Wednesdays are the hardest days – each containing a triple training whammy of morning run, gym in the afternoon, then another run in the evening.
Mind over muscle
Another key part of his development has been building the mental strength to deal with the disappointments a racing career throws your way.
The 26-year-old’s biggest letdown was failing to qualify for the Olympic 5000m final in Beijing in 2008. “That was hard,” he says, visibly downcast. “It took me about a year to get over it. But I took a step away from it then came back stronger. Sometimes you need those moments to drive you on to better things."
On the next page: Discover what makes Mo stand out from the running crowd, then copy his top tips.