Not All Plain Sailing

Along with many other people, SGSC pushes the idea that as well as being a lot of fun, extreme and adventure sports are good for you. Facing the dangers and the challenges sharpens the mind and achieving something in a difficult and potentially dangerous sport increases confidence, something that can diminish as you get older. Preparation, i.e. getting into good physical condition, is the key to being able to do this, lessening the risk of both failure and injury. And for Silver Grey athletes, that physical training is itself an important benefit, as has been commented on many times on this site. In any case, Silver Grey athletes are doing plenty of exercise either through doing the sport itself, if you are say a triathlete, or because exercise is the key to the physical conditioning your sport requires.

 

Exercise is powerful medicine. The good it can do you is extensive as is its capacity to change your body. However, from a recent report it seems that this is not the only side of the story.

 

The changes that you look for through exercise can only happen if you push at the boundaries of your strength and fitness, so in order to improve it is necessary to go beyond what you can currently do. The important thing is to push the right amount in order to create improvement. And generally speaking, if you go too far any damage will repair itself with rest and recovery.

 

If you’re not particularly fit then a small amount of overtraining can be a risk. On the other hand, if you are one of the fittest people in the world and operate at the extreme end of what is achievable, then what you need to do to overdo it must be similarly extreme. And this is the case with Steve Birkinshaw, a legend in the sport of fell running. This is a sport which involves running up, down, across and along fells and mountains, much of which obviously also takes place at high altitudes, which is an additional strain on one’s fitness. Burkinshaw is famed not solely for his running ability but also for his capacity to push his body to extremes of ... well, discomfort is just too much of an understatement to describe what he can withstand in the pursuit of his running goals.

 

After 40 years of racing success he decided to take on one of the ultimate challenges in the sport, and break a record previously held to be almost unbreakable. The challenge was to run up (and down) all 214 fells as detailed in Wainwright Routes, the definitive guide to the Lake District, and the time he had to do it was seven days, in order to break the record that had been set for the feat in 1986 by another similarly legendary figure Joss Naylor who did it in seven days and an hour. The run distance totals 320 miles, with a vertical ascent of over 30,000 metres in total. Birkinshaw’s new record - 6 days 13 hours! Astonishing! But at some cost, as it turned out.

 

Birkinshaw had suffered post-run ill-effects before, but nothing like this, and even 18 months after the run he was still suffering - from fatigue, irregular heartbeat and high blood pressure. Other runners in his field and in the field of ultra-running have felt similar consequences, and previous research has highlighted this. But now scientists at several universities, including Liverpool John Moores University, Countess Of Chester Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, St George's, University of London, Cardiff Metropolitan University, and University of California, Davis are starting a longer term study into the effects on the hearts of ultra-runners. The study will be lead by Martin Hoffman, himself an ultra-runner.

 

Hoffman says that he expects the study to last several years, after which they hope to be able to give guidelines as to the point at which over-training becomes damaging.

 

But Hoffman also makes the point that although they will be studying damaging effects from running, these only apply at the most vertiginous levels of achievement. Couch potatoes shouldn’t use the problems caused to ultra runners to de-incentivise themselves. The damage caused by inactivity, he says, is far worse than that caused by over-training.

 

And in the opinion of SGSC, the vast majority of people are in no danger of getting even within sight of those problems - so no excuses!!