Myths: Western athletes are not as tough as they used to be

Let me begin this article by warning you that unlike most of our “myths” series, what I am about to tell you is not based in scientific facts but personal observation. This means you should take this as my personal opinion, no more and no less, but I often hear the voice raised about how our declining standards are a result of “Western” athletes (traditionally meaning from Europe, the US, New Zealand and Australia) not being as tough as their forebears.

We forget that genetically speaking all of us are essentially identical to our “tough-as-nails” cavemen ancestors. In some ways, we are still cavemen but, because we have been locked up in a zoo for all of our lives, we break more easily when confronted with physical and mental challenges. Would we blame the gorilla in Dublin zoo for being less hard than it’s wild cousins? No, we would recognise the situation for what it is: maladapted to a natural environment for no fault of its own.

So many athletes I have encountered on my journey through the world of running, mountain running in particular, have every bit as much desire, grit and stubborn application of their ability as those who went before them in the golden generations of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Perhaps factors such as greater competition from other sports, a theory espoused by Steve Ovett in “The Perfect Distance”, has played a part in reducing the absolute talent pool, but has this competition from other sports really changed that much since those days? Football was, arguably, already vastly the most popular sport worldwide in the 70s, as it is today.

Finding athletes willing to go through 100-mile weeks is not a problem I have as a coach. Most would happily do it and I have seen several athletes coming back from injury with the first thing on their mind being getting back to very high mileage.  But most break down well before reaching anything like this type of mileage. We should not assume that Kenyan athletes (as an example) can tolerate more pain or more hardship than their Western competitors (although a study on the topic would be welcome). Rather, we should remember that the act of running is as natural for them as it is for you to pick up the newspaper in the shop on the corner. They find it easier because for them it is entirely natural. As it should be for us.

Others again struggle to fit it in around the so-called “modern life” which, contrary to what many will have you believe, may be richer in materials but leaves us poorer in time than our athletic colleagues 30-40 years ago. You only need read the accounts in “A Cold Clear Day”, “No Bugles, No Drums”, “A Clean Pair of Heels” and other classic biographies to understand that life was better suited for athletic pursuits then than it is now.

Do not blame the mental toughness of the current crop of athletes: blame the political system that has created a society with much wealth (especially for the rich) but little time, a society largely tied to desks and inactive lifestyles, and a society that has made it cheaper and easier to buy junk food than healthy nutrition. We are so far divorced from our natural states that even if we do lack some mental edge, it is perfectly understandable. For some people a park has come to symbolise their only exposure to nature. How can we expect them to be as comfortable and courageous in extreme situations as those who go for a jaunt into the wilderness daily. The answer is: we can’t. In fact, I propose it is miraculous that we still get people tough enough to run 100-mile training weeks despite spending 40-hours or more sitting down. Spending such a huge amount of our time in such an unnatural position (and indeed environment) should ruin us irrevocable. It is a testament to the remarkable resilience of the human body that it does not.

Certainly we can refocus our mindset around athletic training away from gizmos, gadgets and quick-fixes to solid hard work and the application of simple logical training principles. But this is merely a symptom of a much greater malaise: if we wish our athletes to compete with the best in the world again in endurance sports, then we have to provide the conditions in our society that allow people to absorb the amount of training required to reach this level. These conditions are no longer there for the vast majority. Every athlete can do their part by voicing their concerns about the way our society is run at every turn.

There is no reason Ireland and other Western countries cannot produce several sub-2:10 marathoners but only when we put in place the conditions they need as a society.

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Director and coach at ChampionsEverywhere
The man who had every injury and had to learn how to fix them - Rene Borg is the head coach of Glendalough AC and a passionate runner competing over all distances and terrains.
  • @ Fergal Reid on Facebook: That is my
    general point alright but I think your line of questioning opens up a debate
    about some complexities that may have relevance to running performance. I am
    aware of the siberian fox experiment (indeed would like to buy one!) but the
    changes to the foxes, interestingly, is mainly behavioural and superficial. The
    majority of differences between humans are similarly quite superficial and I
    believe that the similarity between skeletons of the early Homo Sapiens Sapiens
    and us suggest that there has not been a genetic upheaval similarly to the
    theoretical scenario you outline (that is not to say it could not happen, let’s
    get some volunteers!). With the advanced research going into triggering the
    genes providing the best health and physical strength in humans, I would not be
    surprised if the next “homo” (homo superior as sci-fi likes to call them?)  will be a result of scientific development and
    not natural evolution.

    I would consider us dissimilar to “cavemen” when the
    point arises where evolutionary biologists consider our current population to
    have branched off from homo sapiens just as when we branched off from archaic homo
    sapiens 200.000 years ago but am aware the boundaries are somewhat ethereal as
    no such “hard stop” exists in nature (as Dawkin’s put it in “The Greatest Show
    on Earth”: every generation looks almost exactly like the last one). The
    interesting question to an evolutionary biologist would be: if you studied
    modern human skeletons would you place them in the same genus as homo sapiens
    sapiens? Since this is the case and most physiological changes seem to be minor and not widespread (such as lactose tolerance), I assume the answer to that question is invariably still yes. So if original Homo Sapiens Sapiens was built to thrive in a rough natural environment, we too should still share this strength.

    Yet, there
    is some interesting research going on at the moment: one shows that the
    greatest part of the human genetic diversity is found in Africa (because we
    originated there and the sub-population that migrated away has a narrower set).
    Interestingly, some evidence suggest that the non-African populations may have
    interbred slightly with Neanderthals and one or two others types of hominids.
    This would have fascinating implications if true because Neanderthals, like our
    common ancestor homo erectus, were believed to be sturdier, stronger and less
    effective runners. Could this have a part in the apparent differences between
    non-Africans and Africans? I still believe genetics plays a smaller part than believed
    especially because the elite athletes in Africa come from extremely small
    subsets of even the African population (indeed the majority of black athletes
    show no signs of being genetically superior to white athletes). I am going to
    try and expand on that in an upcoming article “Myths: black athletes are
    genetically superior”.