Anima Sana In Corpore Sano

Climbing the Aosta valley to Tete de la Trenche (Italy), 2019 CCC (UTMB Series race)

I am no Latin student but the above phrase is the motto of a well known sports shoe company. It roughly translates “A Sound Mind in a Sound Body.” I am querying what a ‘sound’ mind and body might mean as more years go by.

In 2021 I only did one race, an ultra*. From results I see I was the oldest finisher. It felt a strange ‘achievement’ for which there were no prizes! Something that I would maybe look up to in others but attributing to myself am not so keen! Not sure I want to be the oldest anything!

How long to continue training and entering competitions? I have no clear answer. Obviously it is a highly personal decision. Those who have stopped training and competing will no doubt have their stories. 

As far as the body is concerned a key thought is to care for it and avoid injury. Learn to appreciate the environment of trails and mountains and the natural way it exercises my body. Avoid as much as possible running on roads and hard, manufactured surfaces. 

About 10 years ago I came across the writings of the coach Phil Maffetone**. For some years I had been following marathon style training plans and thought this could be utilised for ultra running. I pushed my body but would often feel niggling injuries. Subscribing to the ‘no pain, no gain’ philosophy I thought this was to be expected. However running was supposed to be fun. Training was stressing my body and probably mind too much. It’s likely not the only reason but since adopting some of Maffetone’s training philosophy I have been injury free. This is by no means a summary but some of the major takeaways for me have been…

  • Train at a low heart rate (HR) 80-85% of the time. By low he means very low. Idea is that you learn to run (or train at any other sport) at your maximum aerobic function (MAF). This makes for more efficient running i.e. after a time you run at same speed but at lower HR. For me this should be about 120 bpm. In reality for me it is 125-130, still a lot lower than it used to be. 
  • Avoid sugar and refined carbohydrates in their many forms. Eat healthy fats and unprocessed food. I try but fall short. This kind of message is more mainstream nowadays. Maffetone was saying these things decades ago but like the prophets of old was often ridiculed. 

Combining the low heart rate training and dietary advice helps the body burn fat when training. I don’t pretend to be very strict in following this but know it has helped me. 

The more difficult area to address as time goes on is what is going on in the mind. I suspect many older runners just stop one day and it has largely to do with how they think. Rather than the cause of their stopping being some major physical deterioration or life changing injury it is what is going on in their head that is the source of their decision. The effects of stress are subtle. As Maffetone advises add up all our stresses, both physical and mental. They all influence each other. Relationship, lifestyle, work or mental/ physical health issues all impinge on how we will perform physically. In some ways this is counter intuitive. Most runners will attest to the great way that running affects mood and releases stress. This is true and getting outdoors and taking in the beauty of nature will always be good and refreshing. There are no easy answers but there are times to be kind to body and mind. Sometimes you can get similar physical and mental benefits by going for a leisurely stroll instead of a gruelling run. 

Of course our physical strength, endurance and flexibility deteriorates. For me the temptation is to become discouraged because I get slower or take longer to recover. Instead I should accommodate to that fact by adjusting training and recovery. Crucially I need to re-evaluate my goals. I have to accept there will come a time when a 24+ hour race will be beyond me. 

The problem is that after training and doing 20 ultras over past 12 years I still think I should be improving, not deteriorating. Telling myself it’s all about discovering my limits. There is something about the mentality of doing an ultra where the mind controls the body. Finish one ultra and the mind says I can do better next time. The pain, agony, fatigue and nausea are miraculously forgotten a day or two afterwards. Perhaps I can do same thing faster? Maybe there is some other challenge that is more difficult? It is like being fiercely competitive with myself. I am my own worst enemy. 

Can I reconcile a belief in the amazing potential of mind and body with the reality of aging? Maybe I shouldn’t ruminate so much and just get on with it? Whatever my issues I can take inspiration from the likes of legendary Italian mountain runner Marco Olmo***. He won the 170km UTMB outright in 2006 & 2007 at the ages of 58 and 59! The oldest to ever win it. The following year 2008 Kilian Jornet took the title but he was less than half Marco’s age at the time! Marco is now 73. Anyhow whether competing or not I still hope to be lacing up my shoes and be out on the trail for as long as I can.

Meeting Marco Olmo in Chamonix (France), 7 Sept 2019.

* West Highland Way Challenge Race Report (A. Grant)

**    I also found Maffetone’s book ‘The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing’ helpful.

***  You can read some background here