Haile Gebrselassie

On January, 22, 2020, five days after thirty-eight year old Sara Hall set a new American record of 1:07:15 for the half marathon, Women’s Running magazine published an article titled “Sara Hall Shares 7 Keys to Her Longevity of Excellence.” For your convenience, I have copied the article’s section headings, which neatly summarize Hall’s secrets, and pasted them here:

“Immersing herself in the love of running”
“Being relentlessly resilient”
“Embracing imperfection”
“Trusting and adapting in training”
“Keeping the faith”
“Focusing on a full life”
“Turning disappointment into teaching moments”

There’s a lot of wisdom packed in these few phrases, but do they constitute a complete recipe for “longevity of excellence”? Of course not, as I’m sure Hall herself would agree. One additional nugget of advice I would offer to aging endurance athletes is this: Assume nothing. By this I mean that you must not assume you will slow down, or your training capacity will decrease, as you get older. Just keep chugging along as though you are immune to the laws of nature that affect other aging athletes and see what happens.

I first heard this advice many years ago from Dave Scott, the legendary six-time Ironman world champion. When Scott was twenty-eight he told his girlfriend Linda Buchanan that he wanted to be even fitter at forty than he was then. Well, he got his wish. In 1994, three months shy of his forty-first birthday, Scott narrowly missed winning a seventh Ironman title, finishing a close second to thirty-year-old Greg Welch. “I didn’t feel like there were any boundaries,” Scott told me years later. “I was constantly reminded of how old I was, but those comments went in one ear and out the other.”

Psychologists have demonstrated that expectations of all kinds tend to be self-fulfilling. It’s not surprising, then, that athletes like Dave Scott, who perform as well after forty as they did before, tend to share a defiant attitude toward the aging process. Some even talk about aging as an advantage. “The more you age, the more you’re getting stronger,” said twenty-seven-time world record-breaker Haile Gebrselassie at a press conference before the 2010 New York City Marathon, when he was officially thirty-seven years old but probably closer to forty-one. “I still feel like age of twenty.” Alas, Gebrselassie wound up DNF’ing the next day, but three years later he was still winning major races, including the Vienna Half Marathon.

Let’s be clear: Age is more than just a number. It is an inexorable biological process ending in death. Athletes who extend their peak performance years into their forties by virtue of high expectations are not defying the laws of nature. If it were not physically possible to set an American record at thirty-eight, Sara Hall would not have done so. In continuing to improve as they approach middle age, the Sara Halls of the world are merely exploiting a possibility that exists in all of us.

This was shown in a recent study by researchers at Germany’s Martin Luther University. The purpose of the study was to identify differences in how older and younger athletes tolerate and recover from high-intensity interval training. Two groups of twelve well-trained cyclists and triathletes, one with an average age of twenty-four and the other with an average age of forty-seven, completed a series of HIIT sessions. During and after each workout, a variety of physiological measurements were taken in an effort to assess how stressful the interval set was for the individual and how quickly the athlete recovered. For example, the researchers looked at the rate at which lactate was cleared from the bloodstream during recovery intervals. They found no differences between the two groups in any of these measurements, leading them to conclude (in language so bloodlessly scientific it’s almost self-parodying), “[I]t seems that the trainability of the organism is maintained.”

Findings like this one suggest that, for athletes over forty who experience a marked decline in performance, the flesh is willing but the spirit is weak. This was certainly Dave Scott’s take, as he explained in the above-referenced conversation: “I think it comes back to how hungry you are in your workouts and how intense you are in your workouts. I coach regular folks. I have thirty-year-old’s, forty-year-old’s, fifty-year-old’s, sixty-year-old’s. . . The intensity of the workouts drops off as people age. They allow it to.”

I’m no Dave Scott or Haile Gebrselassie or Sara Hall, but I am living proof that mere mortals too can extend their peak performance years into their forties if they let the chatter about age go in one ear and out the other. Having raced my first Ironman at thirty-one, I completed my fastest Ironman at forty-eight. Having raced my first marathon at twenty-eight, I completed my fastest marathon at forty-six. And having raced my first 10K at twelve, I completed my fastest one at forty-nine. I repeat: Assume nothing!

If you’re interested in the effects of diet and nutrition on endurance performance, you’ll be interested in a study that was just published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness. Italian researchers recruited 40 student-athletes from the University of Bergamo and separated them into four groups. Two of the groups were made up of kickboxers, so we’ll ignore them. The other two were made up of runners, half of whom received nutritional counseling for three months while continuing to train normally, the other half of whom served as controls.

The runners receiving nutritional counseling were specifically instructed to bring their diet more in line with Mediterranean diet standards (which emphasize vegetables, fruits, herbs, nuts, beans, poultry, seafood, and dairy, roughly in this order). Before and after the three-month intervention, all of the athletes were subjected to various fitness tests. While both groups improved, the runners receiving nutritional counseling showed significantly greater improvements in VO2max and body composition.

Why trust Professionals for Sports Nutrition Guidance?

Scientists are careful not to overgeneralize the conclusions they draw from individual studies, but I’m not a scientist, so I’m going to go ahead and do it. The lesson here, for me, is that if you improve your diet, you will probably run better, and that if you wish to improve your diet, your best move is put yourself in the hands of a credentialed sports nutrition expert with mainstream scientific training. Too many athletes who are motivated to improve their diet instead adopt fads such as ketogenic diets and intermittent fasting, and although some who go down this road end up satisfied with their results, it’s way riskier than the road I recommend.

Another advantage of the real experts is that they are full-service diet coaches, whereas their fraudulent competitors typically have just one limited shtick. In addition to supplying less risky (if also less sexy) dietary counsel, a legitimate sports nutritionist can help you customize the general principles of sound nutrition to your particular needs, preferences, and lifestyle, and help you solve special problems such as dialing in your race fueling.

I am reminded here of a 2014 study, conducted by researchers at Denmark’s Aalborg University, that is sort of the race-fueling equivalent of the general diet study I just described. In this one, 28 runners training for the Copenhagen Marathon were separated into two groups of equal ability based on their performance in a 10 km time trial. On race day, one group used their own “freely chosen nutritional strategy” while the other group applied a “scientifically based nutritional strategy,” consuming carbs on a schedule of 60 grams per hour, which prior research indicated was optimal for endurance performance. On average, the runners who executed their own freely chosen fueling plan took in 38 percent less carbohydrate during the race. They also finished an average of 10:55 or 4.7 percent slower than the runners of equal ability who fueled scientifically.

Scientifically based guidance on diet and fueling is best, and if you want it, your best move is to hire a credentialed sports nutrition expert—which is precisely what professional endurance athletes—who can’t afford to play games with their eating and fueling—do. A good example is the great Ethiopian runner Haile Gebrselassie, who, after a brilliant career on the track, moved up to the marathon, where he struggled at first (by his standards), winning only one of his first three attempts at 26.2 miles and falling short of his time goals. Realizing that his inability to tolerate large amounts of fluid and carb intake during longer events was holding him back, Gebrselassie sought help from world-renowned endurance sports nutrition researcher Asker Jeukendrup of the University of Birmingham (who wrote the foreword to my book The Endurance Diet, which I like to think makes up for my own lack of professional training in sports nutrition–oh, the irony!). In his next race, the 2007 Berlin Marathon, Geb consumed two liters of sports drink and water and six carbohydrate gels and broke the world record.

Given all of this, why would any athlete who cares about their performance seek nutritional guidance from any other kind of source? I think it happens for three reasons. First, most athletes—actually, all of them, I think—have been eating their whole lives, so they don’t see diet management as requiring any sort of special expertise. Heck it’s just food, right?

A second reason few athletes think to seek nutritional guidance from a credentialed sports nutrition expert is that their fraudulent competition has better marketing. Keto-friendly anti-vaxxer Ben Greenfield has books, a podcast, and a Twitter account with more than 73,000 followers. The typical sports dietitian just sits around waiting for the phone to ring. 

Reason number three (and there are probably others) is that there’s a sucker born every minute. The sad truth is that, if you give the typical athlete with a mediocre diet and love handles an option between eating fewer processed foods and adopting a sexy name-brand diet that’s promoted in spam emails and on “The Dr. Oz Show” and on the covers of glossy magazines in supermarket checkout aisles, odds are they will choose the latter. And get what they deserve!

Arguably the greatest runner in history is an Ethiopian man named Haile Gebrselassie. He broke nearly 30 world records in a career that spanned from the early 1990s through 2015. He has won eight World Championships gold medals, two Olympic gold medals, and numerous major marathons. Now at least 38 years old (it is widely believed he is actually three or four years older), Gebrselassie remains among the fastest distance runners in the world.

In the early part of his career, Haile Gebrselassie was believed to be dominant simply because he had more natural talent than other runners. But the longer his reign of dominance has extended, the more apparent it has become that Geb’s success has as much to do with his mental attitude as with whatever genetic advantages he may have.

Gebrselassie set his first marathon world record in Berlin in 2007. After crossing the finish line he was swarmed by reporters. The first words they heard him utter were these: “I can run faster.” The following year Geb returned to Berlin and set another world record, bettering his own mark by 27 seconds. He immediately set about trying to run even faster.

Haile Gebrselassie is the greatest runner who ever lived not only because he is extremely talented but also because he is never satisfied. This is a hallmark characteristic of champions in every sport and of successful people outside of sports as well. Mediocre performers in sports and beyond pat themselves on the back when they achieve goals. Champions don’t. Not even one minute after doing better than they ever have before (perhaps even better than any human being has ever done before) they decide that they could have done better—and will do better.

People who don’t have this mindset often assume that an athlete who is never satisfied is an athlete who never allows himself to enjoy his sport. This is not true. You can have a never-satisfied mentality and simultaneously maintain a great passion for your sport or entrepreneurship or whatever else. In fact, Haile Gebrselassie is beloved by runners around the world because he never stops smiling and because his passion for running is always so evident. His inability to ever be content with anything he achieves does not get in the way of his passion for running—it is an expression of his passion. He has an insatiable hunger to reach higher. He loves trying to reach higher, whether he succeeds or fails.

No matter what your passion is, you will get both more success and more enjoyment from it if you are never satisfied.

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