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07 Jun

It may seem obvious – as you push on through a long run, veering wildly between sensations of agony and elation – that running can have a huge effect on your state of mind. It is an intuitive idea that a growing number of neuroscientists have begun to take seriously, and in recent years they have started to show us what actually plays out on the hills and valleys of your grey matter as you run.

Their findings confirm what many runners know from their own experience: we can use running as a tool to improve the way we think and feel. And we are now learning precisely why running can return focus, vanquish stress and improve mood. Plus we know why – if you’re lucky – you might get a brief glimpse of nirvana.

It would be crazy to believe that running is a universal solution to all of our psychological challenges. Indeed, from your brain’s perspective, you may not want to push it too hard. German neuroscientists scanned the brains of some of the competitors before, during, and after the TransEurope Foot Race, in which competitors slog through 3,000 miles, over 64 consecutive days. In the middle of this absurdly extreme ultramarathon, the runners’ grey matter had shrunk in volume by 6%: the ‘normal’ shrinkage associated with old age is just 0.2% each year. Luckily, the story doesn’t end too badly: eight months later the runners’ brains were back to normal.

But if covering immense distances can be counter-productive, it is clear now that more moderate runs can result in very real benefits. First, in a world where smartphones bombard us with stimulation and blur the boundaries between work and life, a clutch of recent studies shows why going for a run can help regain a sense of control.

A 2018 experiment from West Michigan University, for example, showed that running quickly for half an hour improves “cortical flicker frequency” threshold. This is associated with the ability to better process information. Two others, from the Lithuanian Sports University and Nottingham Trent University, showed that interval running improves aspects of “executive function”. This is a suite of mental high-level faculties that include the ability to marshall attention, tune out distractions, switch between tasks and solve problems. Among the young people studied, measurable gains were clear immediately after 10 minutes of interval sprints. They also accumulated after seven weeks of training.

A brain imaging study led by David Raichlen at the University of Arizona ties in neatly with these results. They saw clear differences in brain activity in serious runners, compared to well-matched non-runners. For obvious reasons, you cannot run while you are inside a brain scanner, so the neuroscientists studied the brain at rest. First, they saw increased co-ordinated activity in regions, mainly at the front of the brain, known to be involved in executive functions and working memory. This makes sense. Second, they saw relative damping down of activity in the “default mode network”, a series of linked brain regions that spring into action whenever we are idle or distracted. Your default mode network is the source of your inner monologue, the instigator of mind-wandering and the voice that ruminates on your past. Its effects are not always welcome or helpful, and have been associated with clinical depression.

Raichlen’s was a preliminary study, but if corroborated in the future, it will lend fresh weight to the idea that running can be a form of moving mindfulness meditation. Brain scans show that meditation and running can have a somewhat similar effect on the brain; simultaneously engaging executive functions and turning down the chatter of the default mode network. Again, this seems intuitively right: in the midst of a run, you are likely to be immersed in the present moment, tuned into your bodily state, and conscious of your breath. These are all key aims of mindfulness-based practices. Lacing up your trainers and going for a run could, therefore, be a way to reap some of the psychological benefits of mindfulness. Companies, too, are cottoning on to the therapeutic effects of running: I recently worked with running-shoe company Saucony to create a podcast about the effects of running on the mind.

All of this might start to explain why some people find that running, like mindfulness, can be a useful way to overcome stress and depression. Recent research from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden shows, at a chemical level, how running can defuse at least one important biological stress pathway.

When you are under stress, metabolic processes in your liver convert the amino acid tryptophan into a molecule with the mumble-inducing name of knyurenine. Some of that knyurenine finds its way into your brain, where its accumulation has been strongly associated with stress-induced depression, anxiety disorders and schizophrenia. When you exercise, the levels of an enzyme called kynurenine aminotransferase build up in your muscles. This enzyme breaks down knyurenine into the related molecule kynurenic acid, which, importantly, cannot enter the brain. In this way, exercising your skeletal muscles by running clears from your bloodstream a substance that can cause mental health problems. It is important to note that, for technical and ethical reasons, some of the details of this mechanism have been proven only in laboratory animals.

Saucony has even named its latest shoe collection “White Noise” after the mind-clearing effects of a run

Saucony has even named its latest shoe collection – available from – “White Noise” after the mind-clearing effects of a run Photograph: Saucony

At first glance, it is not obvious why working your leg muscles should have a direct effect on your mental state. This work provides rare insight into the often-mysterious links between brain and body – and is a powerful reminder that your brain is just another bodily organ. What you choose to do with your body will, inevitably, have psychological consequences.

Running can do more for your mood than smooth out stress. Some lucky souls gloat about their experiences of the “runner’s high”, which, they claim, is a powerful feeling of ecstasy and invincibility. Running has never quite done that for me, but we do now know more about the potent chemical rewards that running triggers in the brain.

The popular idea of the “endorphin rush” was born in the 1980s and 90s, when a series of studies showed that the levels of beta-endorphin increase in your bloodstream during the course of a run. Beta-endorphin targets the same receptors as opiates, and has some similar biological effects. The endorphin rush hypothesis always had a flaw, however, since beta-endorphin does not cross readily the blood-brain barrier. And if it didn’t make it into your brain, how could it give you a high?

In 2008, German neuroscientists put that right. They used functional brain imaging to show that, in trained runners, beta-endorphin levels do indeed spike in the brain after a two-hour run. Increased levels endorphin activity in the brain also correlated with the runners’ self-reported feelings of euphoria.

It is not just home-brew opiates that can dull the pain and raise your spirits while you are on the run. Endocannabinoids are a diverse family of bodily chemicals which, like cannabis, bind the brain’s cannabinoid receptors. The levels of endocannabinoids circulating in the blood rises after 30 minutes of moderately intense treadmill running. Rigorous experiments, conducted on lab mice, show that running-induced endocannabinoids are responsible for reductions in anxiety and perception of pain. It is a good bet that the same mechanism works in our minds. For many of us, running may never deliver a drug-like high. But we now see why a run that feels like murder at the start can leave you feel satisfied and at ease by the home straight.

Some of these studies are preliminary and need fleshing out. And it is definitely the case that your gender, genetic profile, fitness, expectations and many other factors besides will influence the way your brain responds to running. Even so, I read all these neuroscientific studies as good news stories.

While the physical benefits of running and aerobic exercise are well established, we are starting to see why running can have profound benefits for mental health, too. Hopefully, knowing this will redouble your determination to get out there and run more often.

Ben tweets at @mountainogre

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07 Jun

I’ve been running ultra marathons for about 16 months now, but I’ve been mostly keeping to low-key, smaller races such as the Ring O Fire in Anglesey, or the Miwok 100K in California. These races are intimate: you get to know the other runners, the race organisers. You get to feel like an oddball as you shuffle alone at dawn through quiet country towns with your backpack and head torch.

But with the UTMB looming – the biggest ultra mountain trail race in the world – last week, it was time to get my first taste of the razzmatazz of the European ultra trail circuit, by taking part in the Lavaredo Ultra Trail in the Italian Dolomites.

The world of ultra running may still be little known in the UK or the US, but in France, Spain and Italy, these races are huge. In the piazza of Cortina d’Ampezzo, just before the 11pm start, the town is alive with noise and bustle. As well as the 1,600 runners cramming into the start area, thousands of people have come out to cheer us on our way, sitting high up on walls, dancing on hotel balconies, as a huge sound system gees everyone up.

The race is 120km along some spectacular and steep mountain trails. It’s a daunting prospect, so I hang near the back as the moment to start approaches. Up at the front, superstars of the sport such as the Americans Hayden Hawks and Tim Tollefson, Fernanda Maciel from Brazil, and the former Nepalese child soldier Mira Rai, are introduced to the crowd to huge cheers. You rarely see this much excitement or buzz at the start of a road race. This is a sport full of colour and adrenalin, with lean, chiselled mountain men and women with tattoos and expansive handshakes everywhere. And a lot of beards.

And then, as the clock strikes 11, and to the strains of the race’s theme tune, The Ecstasy of Gold by Ennio Morricone, we’re off. The showboating is over – now it’s time to run.

With so many competitors, once we leave the town and head into the mountains, the narrow trails get congested to the point where I’m often forced to walk, or even stop completely. But this is good, I need to force myself to slow down in the early stages of these races. Too often in my fledgling ultra career I’ve set off too fast, too eager, and I’ve ended up being that guy slumped by the side of the trail at 90km, not sure how I’m going to continue. Not this time, I tell myself, as I wait for another bottleneck to clear.

The night ticks slowly by, traipsing up and down through woodland trails, following the highway of head torches, until the chilly morning emerges suddenly and we find ourselves face to face with the immensity of Tre Cime, a huge trio of rocky peaks that seem otherworldly in the dawn light.

After some pasta soup at a crowded aid station – who knew mini star-shaped pasta floating in vegetable stock could taste so good? – we begin the first long descent back down into the valley.

These mountain races are, of course, a series of climbs and descents, and until today I’ve always struggled with both, having come to ultras from road running. But today, finally, it all starts to make sense.

The North Face Lavaredo Ultra Trail

Feeling the strain … Photograph:

On the climbs, I have a new friend, a pair of Leki hiking poles. I’ve always been resistant to using poles in races. It reinforces the walking element of mountain trail running, which I try to ignore. I like to think of myself as a runner, not a hiker. This is ultra running, I tell myself, not ultra hiking. Besides, the runners I’m most impressed by, people such as Kilian Jornet and Zach Miller, seem to cope just fine without them.

But the truth is that in a 120km mountain race like this, I’m going to spend a fair amount of time hiking up steep climbs, and poles certainly look like they might help. When I ran the 100 Mile Sud de France in October, I was pretty much the only person in the race without poles.

Of course, you’re supposed to practice with poles before you use them. So you don’t trip yourself up. So you know how to store them when you’re not using them. So any number of a thousand possible unseen problems can be avoided in advance of the race. But practising with poles when you don’t live near any mountains is not easy. I tried them out on the coast path near my home in Devon, but the climbs are so short – even though they can be very steep – that I’m forever putting the poles away and getting them out again. It’s all good pole practice, but it slows your run down. So I do it once. It doesn’t seem so difficult.

In the event, the race becomes the practice. By the time I’m finished, I have it nailed. I barely grip the poles, but let them mostly dangle in the straps around my wrists. That works better, and doesn’t rub my hands. And they really seem to help. It’s like having a rail to hold on to up the biggest ascents. Throughout the race, even though getting them out of my bag is a hassle, I use them on every climb.

But it is the descents where things really click for me. I keep waiting for my legs to start complaining, but on each downhill I just let myself go, flying and skipping along through the field. From 900th position at the first checkpoint in the race, about 10 miles in, I gain around 100 places on every descent. People look at me racing by, particularly near the end, with a touch of annoyance. It does seem a little unfair to be making up so much ground on the downhills. They’re the easy bit. But why doesn’t everyone else go a bit faster?

Let the poles do the work …

Let the poles do the work … Photograph: Gonzalo Ocampos/

I know why. I’ve been there before, where your legs are so tired that even going downhill is a struggle, where your legs don’t want to, or can’t, lift your feet from the ground. Where all you can do to stop yourself sitting down is to keep up a slow, pained, forward shuffle.

But after 10 ultra races, for the first time, I’m not that guy. I’m that other guy. The one who comes from nowhere, full of energy, skipping past you, and you think, bloody show off.

In the end, I finish, 120km later and in 366th position, back in the buzzing town of Cortina. Twenty-one and a half hours. I grab my free beer and sit down in the square to take it all in. Something has shifted. My whole perception of time and distance seems to have changed, because suddenly it doesn’t seem that crazy to have been out running for so long. When I started ultra running, the thought of running for more than four hours felt a little insane. I remember the first time my GPS clicked past 30 miles and finding it hard to process. But now, well it seems sort of normal. Seventy-five miles is a long run, sure. But not that long.

Still, I’m shivering and tired and night is falling, so I’m grateful that Giovanni, the owner of Hotel Villa Argentina, is a runner and has given everyone in the race his phone number so that when we finish he will come and pick us up and scoot us back to the hotel bar for pizza and lemon soda, followed by a long, warm bath. All those things that are just bloody incredible after a long run. Even if it’s only a 21.5-hour-long run.

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07 Jun

On Saturday, London celebrates Pride with its annual parade. While most of those taking part or watching from the crowded streets will be doing so with a drink in hand and plenty of glitter, the London Frontrunners will be running the route. Followed up, of course, by brunch and a big old party.

The Frontrunners are Europe’s largest LGBT+ sports club, with more than 400 members taking part in their runs, trips to international races and busy social calendar. Mary Cormack, their publicity officer, whom I met during Monday’s 10km from Elephant & Castle to Battersea Park, tells me that the 80 wristbands to run in the Pride Parade went faster than Usain Bolt.

I asked several of the runners what drew them to the Frontrunners, rather than one of the hundreds of other running groups in the city. For most it was the appeal of making new friends within the LGBT+ community and not having to worry about any kind of prejudice or lack of awareness that could perhaps still linger in the locker rooms of more traditional running clubs. Mary explained: “It wasn’t actually until I found an LGBT-friendly club that I realised it does actually make a difference.”

Joining a running club can be pretty daunting in the first place. Turning up and seeing a huge group of whippet-thin, Lycra-clad runners who rack up insanely fast times can be really intimidating if you’re just getting into the sport. This is definitely not the case with the Frontrunners. On arrival several people come up to say “Hi” and, before the main run starts, session leader Christos invites newbies to say hello before talking the 40-strong group through today’s route and some upcoming social events.

The London branch of Frontrunners was established in 1995, but the original San Francisco Frontrunners was started in 1974 by Jack Baker and Gardner Pond. Now there are Frontrunners chapters across the globe, from Canada to China, Australia to Israel.

During our sunny evening run it was good to see a real mix of abilities. Faster runners took off at impressive speed, waving cheerily as they passed those who were mostly there to chat with friends and were taking a more leisurely pace along the Thames.

Outfits for the Pride parade were the main topic of discussion, but several of the runners also tell me about an upcoming trip to Odense, Denmark, where some will be completing their first half marathon. Followed, of course, by drinks to celebrate.

Creating safe spaces for everyone to enjoy sport is hugely important. Sadly, despite improving awareness and acceptance of LGBT+ people within the workplace, sport is one area of society that has been slow to catch up.

London Frontrunners

London Frontrunners Photograph: Matthew Kirby

Sport England’s 2016 study on the participation of LGBT+ people in sport found that despite improvements, many still struggle to find safe spaces to be “out” and accepted in their chosen sport: “Around 17% of survey respondents were members of a sports club or team, with 48% of these being members of LGBT-specific clubs.”

Positive inclusion is clearly something that needs to continue, as many LGBT+ people still feel that traditional clubs aren’t doing enough to eradicate homophobia and transphobia – but campaigns such as Stonewall’s Rainbow Laces and the visibility of large groups such as Frontrunners offer a blueprint to other organisations and teams that want to become more knowledgeable and inclusive.

As we make the turn in Battersea Park to head back for the post-run pub social, Mary tells me that for the Frontrunners, inclusion, understanding and acceptance are what it’s all about.

“When we go for a social, it’s not even something you think about. We’ll go to a venue that is LGBT+ friendly, so that’s not even an issue because it’s part of the group’s identity and ethos.”

Like many people, when I first got into running I thought it was a pretty solitary activity. So when I came across groups where I could meet other runners who would sympathise about my 10k time (unlike my non-running friends), as well as helping me improve, it was a huge confidence boost. It also helped me commit more to staying active, something that I’d always struggled with.

London Frontrunners

London Frontrunners Photograph: Matthew Kirby

Hopefully other run clubs will take inspiration from the Frontrunners and adopt a more inclusive approach to welcoming LGBT+ members. For instance, all running clubs could put a pledge in their club charter/bylaws stating they welcome all runners to join no matter their sexual orientation – or they can join campaigns like Rainbow Laces to do more to be inclusive at grassroots level.

The sense of pride when it comes to completing a race or waking up early for that pre-work run is, after all, universal. And running has a way of connecting people from all kinds of backgrounds. As Charlie Dark, founder of Run Dem Crew and coach for the BBC’s Mind Over Marathon says: “The road does not care if you are a CEO or unemployed, rich or poor. If you train for the road, it will reward you in ways you could never imagine.” So, this weekend, if you’re going to watch the Pride parade, raise a glass and rainbow flag for the Frontrunners.

Frontrunners welcome runners to their weekly sessions. They also hold specific new member days each month. Visit their website or Facebook to find out more.

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06 Jun

He is the biggest star in ultra running; the winner of some of the biggest races in the world. Last year he climbed Mount Everest twice in one week, without oxygen. And on Sunday night, Kílian Jornet was to be found making history yet again on the fells of the Lake District.

The Bob Graham round is one of the most celebrated challenges in endurance sport, comprising a course of about 106km with an 8,200m ascent over 42 fells, which must be done within 24 hours. It was devised by a Keswick guest-house owner in 1932 and only about 2,000 people have completed the route within the time frame; becoming members of a very exclusive club. Yet, on a hot sunny evening, Jornet completed the route in 12 hours 52 minutes, shattering – by just over an hour – a record that had stood for 36 years.

Billy Bland, who set that record back in 1982, and is now in his 70s, was himself out on the route to offer support – and in another echo from the past, one of Jornet’s pacers was the son of a runner who paced Bland. Jornet made a point of thanking Bland in an Instagram post after the run.

Jornet is one of the breakout stars of the ultra running world, with an autobiography – Run or Die – that was shortlisted for the William Hill Sports Books of the Year award, and half a million followers on Instagram. Yet very little fuss was made of the attempt, with indications only beginning to circulate on social media over the weekend that the run was under way.

Attempts at the Bob Graham must adhere to very specific rules, including informing the club members that you intend to run the course and being accompanied by someone on each of the 42 fells so that they can verify the achievement (no GPS trace will do the trick here). This display of camaraderie and support is very much part of the round – it is an individual challenge that nevertheless relies on help from others, particularly when – like Jornet – you are not local and don’t know the terrain intimately.

The course is divided into five “legs” and club members who have run the route before accompany the challenger on each leg. The third leg is considered the most difficult, with rocky ground and very steep ups and downs. Compared with some of the mountain terrain that Jornet lives and trains on, the elevation is not extreme – after all, Jornet holds the fastest known time for the ascent and descent of Matterhorn, Mont Blanc, Denali and Everest – but the ground can be very challenging, with loose rock and trails that would be easy to stray from.

Jornet is only just returning from breaking his fibula in March, though is doing so in style, having won the Marathon du Mont Blanc just a week ago. But if the amount of time he took off the Bob Graham Round record is impressive, it is also worth noting that Jasmin Paris broke the women’s record in 2016 by two-and-a-half hours – and that the record for completing the round twice, back-to-back, is held by another woman, Nicky Spinks. Then again, there are only a tiny handful of people hardy – some might say foolhardy – enough to take on these challenges.

This article contains affiliate links, which means we may earn a small commission if a reader clicks through and makes a purchase. All our journalism is independent and is in no way influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative. By clicking on an affiliate link, you accept that third-party cookies will be set. More information.

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06 Jun

Would you be more likely to set a personal best in your next race if someone offered you £100? How about £1,000? Or even £5,000? The people behind the Ultra Gobi, a 400km single-stage desert race in China, are hoping to find out whether money can make a difference by announcing a $10,000 prize for anyone who breaks the 71-hour course record.

“In 2017, Dan Lawson laid down an incredible gauntlet in the Gobi” says Pavel Toropov, the race director. “This unparalleled prize is a tribute to that performance and an incentive for the best endurance athletes in the world to challenge it.”

Prize money in distance running is nothing new. Elite marathon runners receive significant appearance fees just to turn up and get six-figure sums for winning big races and setting records. Last year, Eliud Kipchoge was reportedly paid $1m to take part in Nike’s Breaking2 project and would have received a bonus had he broken two hours.

But barring a few isolated examples, ultramarathons have traditionally been lacking in major financial rewards. A trophy, a T-shirt and maybe some free trainers is considered a good haul. I once won some money for finishing on the podium in a trail run in Hong Kong – it worked out as just under £3 for each hour raced. But, given the rising global popularity of the sport, this is may change, with other races and sponsors choosing to follow Ultra Gobi’s example.

There are two clear ways in which increased prize money is likely to improve results: the depth of the field and the intensity of preparation.

Undoubtedly, prize money draws more competitors. Although ultra-running has become more popular, only a tiny proportion of the population ever test themselves over such long distances. If a greater pool of talented athletes were running ultramarathons then winning times should be faster.

The East African Rift valley, home to many of the world’s greatest distance runners, offers a powerful illustration. Winning marathons has become the best route out of rural poverty. Competitive running is a central part of life in many communities, with almost every ambitious youngster trying their hand. But the absence of prize money has been cited a reason for the lack of Kenyan athletes in ultra-running. Were this to change, it’s easy to see how standards could be raised.

The inaugural 2015 Ultra Trail Gobi race.

The inaugural 2015 Ultra Trail Gobi race. Photograph: Nick Muzik

Super-ultra-distance races such as the Ultra Gobi suffer from specific challenges in attracting the best athletes. I can personally attest to the fact that running across the desert for three or four days with little or no sleep takes an enormous toll on runners’ bodies and can require significant recovery time. The money is thus a way to compensate athletes who might otherwise have chosen to compete in several shorter races.

The second area in which prize money can be transformative is training. Sponsorship opportunities, primarily from shoe companies such as Altra, Hoka and Salamon have enabled a few elite ultra-runners to turn professional. However, many of the best endurance runners still combine training and racing with part-time jobs. Dan Lawson juggles running for Great Britain’s 24-hour team with cycle deliveries and running a service for recycling running kit.

Prize money in ultra-running would enable more full-time professionals. Their preparation would also be enhanced by better access to facilities, be that high-altitude training, teams of support professional or simply more comfortable prerace transport and accommodation. (I have known some of the best runners sleep in airport lounges before competing in high profile events.)

There is of course the risk that the incentive of prize money leads to less welcome training innovations. Ultra-running is in many ways ideally suited to illegal doping. Although there have been a few isolated cases, it is generally considered to be a clean sport, unlike marathon running or cycling. Big money could provide the motivation and the means for this to change.

But what about the impact of money on a runner during a race? All endurance sports involve a tussle between mind and body. In his excellent new book, Endure, Alex Hutchinson carefully analyses the physical limits and, more importantly, the mental limits our brains impose to keep us safe. Hence the burst of energy upon seeing the finish line that, a few minutes previously, would have seemed impossible.

A runner a soak in Lake Creek during the 2014 Leadville Trail 100 ultramarathon in Colorado

A runner a soak in Lake Creek during the 2014 Leadville Trail 100 ultramarathon in Colorado Photograph: Kent Nishimura/Denver Post via Getty Images

The late stages of an ultramarathon are often as much about determination and desire as anything else. In a life-or-death situation most of us could push a little harder. And money can be a good motivator. A 1986 study found that people could sustain a wall-sit for longer if they were paid. As Hutchinson says: “It’s sort of like being chased by a lion without the danger of getting eaten.”

Endurance athletes may just be different. Underfed students with no other reason may sustain meaningless pain for a few minutes longer in return for some cash. Competitive ultramarathon runners have already chosen an extremely painful hobby and are likely to be driven by intrinsic motivation. In Hutchinson’s words, for “well-trained athletes, motivation may well be pretty close to maximal already”. Based on my own experience at the end of the Ultra Gobi, nothing short of an actual lion could have made me go any faster.

There are some who are resistant to the introduction of big money into ultramarathon running. Fears around camaraderie, honesty and sportsmanship are valid, but I believe it can be transformative for the sport. Those nostalgic for the days of amateur athletics often overlook the fact that it was largely the preserve of the wealthy. Only people with private means can afford to dedicate themselves fully to an unpaid hobby. Consequently, many talented athletes lost the opportunity to realise their potential, and fans were prevented from seeing the best performances, as the sad case of John Tarrant (AKA the Ghost Runner) so starkly shows.

Finishing the UTMB, a 170 km race around Mont Blanc

Finishing the UTMB, a 170 km race around Mont Blanc Photograph: Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty Images

Bigger prize money in ultramarathons can enable a wider pool of athletes to dedicate more time and be better prepared. This will improve competition and standards. As a follower of the sport, the prospect of watching incredible runners break records and push boundaries is exciting, providing it is accompanied by appropriate safeguards to keep the sport clean and fair.

Whether or not this money will drive individual runners to dig deeper is a more debatable point. Having seen the grit and determination shown by elite ultra-runners I am sceptical. Even the facial expressions of a runner such as Zach Miller show that he is operating close to his mental limits. It will take a very well-funded randomised control trial to find out for sure. I also suspect that some records, like Yiannis Kouris’s 303.5km 24-hour run, could withstand almost any amount of funding.

As for the Ultra Gobi, the $10,000 purse will add to what promises to be a thrilling 2018 race. With Lawson returning to the desert to defend his title and several other big names on show the competition will be fierce. Toropov is tipping a female outright winner: “Nikki [Kimball] is one of the few athletes at home with these kinds of distances. If she can recover from surgery she will have a good chance.” One thing is for certain, whether motivated by pride or profit, it will take a phenomenal performance to better Lawson’s record.

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06 Jun

Most runners have found themselves at the sink dealing ineffectually with muddy, sopping wet trainers and wondering if they dare machine-wash them. Can you do it – and what is the best way to tackle a “rainproof” jacket that is starting to whiff? I asked Michaela Uzzell from appliance manufacturer Miele for her advice on the most common runners’ laundry conundrums.

At what temperature should I wash smelly, sweaty running kit?

The temperature will depend on the material of your clothes: cotton items can be washed regularly at higher temperatures to get rid of bad smells, whereas synthetics are more sensitive to higher temperatures and should be washed at a maximum of 30C. For peace of mind, follow the guidance on the fabric care label, as the manufacturer will dictate the safe temperatures for washing.

If a top is just a bit sweaty, will a rinse do the trick?

Your clothes should be thoroughly washed, as water alone will not fully break down body fats and sweat. Also, if you wait too long to wash your items, it will be more difficult to get rid of bad smells and dirt from the fabric.

Should you use a specialist detergent for sportswear?

We advise using specialist detergent if possible. These are excellent at breaking down bad smells, and will also help to prevent Lycra from sagging and prevens electrostatic charging of fibres, which means your sportswear lasts longer. Non-sports clothes would not be harmed by being washed in this detergent as part of the same wash. It is important to bear in mind, however, that synthetic clothing is more sensitive than cotton, so I would recommended loading the machine only half full, up to a maximum of 4kg.

How should I wash outer running gear that is rainproof or windproof?

We would advise washing using a specialist detergent, ideally teamed with an outerwear programme – most of our washing machines have one – to help protect the fabric. It is important that your waterproof garments are re-proofed every so often, otherwise they will stop repelling water and allowing moisture to escape from the inside. Do use a proofing agent with the relevant programmes on your washing and drying machines.

Some running gear starts to smell, even after washing, as it get older. Is there anything you can do about that?

To avoid this, ensure that you are washing items regularly using a good-quality sportswear detergent, as the odour absorber included will prevent bad smells. Specialist detergent contains the correct enzymes to break down fats and sweat. It is important to make sure that you are washing your clothes at the hottest temperature allowed for the garments; this will help eliminate bacteria that cause bad smells.

Should you tumble-dry technical fabrics?

This depends on the advice of the garment care label advice, which is not random: fabrics from different manufacturers will contain different blends of fibres, so what applies to one brand may not apply to another.

What about fabric softener?

Using fabric softener is not usually necessary when using good detergents, as they contain cellulase, which helps to stop fabrics becoming rough. You should not use fabric softener for any outerwear, as this will damage the membrane of the fabric. Sports textiles are usually made of synthetic fibres, the functional properties of which can be affected by fabric softener.

Should you put your trainers in the washing machine? If so, should you take out the insoles?

Again, it is important to follow the advice of your trainer manufacturer, as different trainers may be more or less suitable for washing machines, depending on their construction and materials. Some washer-dryers actually have a trainers programmes, which have reduced mechanics – similar to the wool and silk programmes. It is not normally necessary to take out insoles.

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06 Jun

What have you been up to recently? I’ve been in Berlin doing some photo stuff with Nike for its new shoe, the Pegasus Turbo. Then just seeing my mates in London quite a bit, watching the World Cup football, having barbecue and social with the lads … That’s about it. I’ve been pretty busy competing and travelling so I haven’t had much down time.

Where’s your favourite place to run? I’m not really fussed where I train – as long as I’ve got good facilities, I’m quite adaptable. So long as I’ve got all the stuff that I need, I don’t really mind. My favourite place to race is anywhere with Mondo – a good, old hard track that’s quite fast.

Do you remember your first race? It was 2010, maybe. I remember my grandad passed away, because I was quite young, and it was a big thing. At the funeral they said something about if you’ve always wanted to do something, go for it, because you don’t know when life will end. I remember thinking, well, I want to do athletics. I went to an open meet and I just ran. And I really enjoyed it, so I started, and that was it. It was my first race, so I didn’t really know what I was doing. I ran a personal best because it was my first race, of course.

Reece Prescod wins the men’s 100m final at the British Championships, Alexander Stadium, Birmingham, on 30 June 2018.

Reece Prescod wins the men’s 100m final at the British Championships, Alexander Stadium, Birmingham, on 30 June 2018. Photograph: Craig Brough/Action Images via Reuters

When people ask you for a training tip, what do you tell them? It depends on what kind of training. For most everyday people I’d say it’s quite hard to train like a sprinter as it’s quite intense. I’d say go to the gym, pick a few exercises and do them well.

Do you ever struggle with motivation? Sometimes you get a slump. In winter, it can be a really hard session and you are on the track and you are just like … [sighs theatrically] one more rep, one more rep. Or you’ve got a 300m [rep session] and it’s the last one, you can feel like you are full of lactic and you just want to die, but you’ve got to keep going and keep running. Sometimes you get demotivated, but after the session is done, and you are all showered and home with your friends and family, and you’re chilling, it’s all good.

Do you listen to music when you run or train? I like R&B, hip-hop, Drake, that kind of stuff. I can listen to anything. It depends on my mood – if I’m in a hyped mood, hype music, but if I’m in a chilled mood it could be Adele. It depends what’s going on.

Do you like a running gadget? I’ve got an app on my phone that can do a block-start thing. I plug in with my speakers and do that when I do my blocks. Some of the boys have got drones so we do drone stuff when we are running. We’ve got calf weights, too, to use.

What’s the worst thing about running? I don’t think there’s anything bad about it. It’s tiring, but it is what it is!

What’s the best thing? You just feel free!

What’s your post-race indulgence? Depends on what’s there. If it’s room service, then pizza or burger and chips will do me well.

What do you eat for breakfast before your big sessions or a big race? Just something simple. Beans, fried eggs, or maybe smoked salmon. A nice healthy juice and a bottle of water.

Have you ever run barefoot? Not really. Not on the track, it’s too hard. Around the house, sure.

Who is your favourite athlete to watch as a spectator? Thomas Röhler. He’s a great javelin thrower. He throws things so far and he’s so consistent. I like a good javelin competition.

Who is your favourite-ever runner? Probably Usain Bolt. That’s obviously who I grew up looking at, so I have to say him. Anyone who works really hard and achieves things, whether it’s in sport or business, that’s what I look for and find inspiring. Kobe Bryant, Roger Federer … they are all inspiring.

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06 Jun

What a fabulous weekend that was. On Friday morning I flew to Berlin for the European athletics championships. Since then I’ve seen so many stunning performances and crammed so much in that it feels like about a fortnight ago.

If Berlin is anything to go by – and to misquote Mark Twain – reports of athletic’s demise are much exaggerated. Attendances of between 40,000-60,000 every day, a crowd who not only got behind their home athletes at ear-splitting volume but roared home the astonishing 17-year old Ingebrigsten to his double gold, Dina Asher-Smith to her treble and last night’s gob-smacking pole vault final, in which 18 year old Mondo Duplantis jumped 6m 05cm at the age of 18. The only man who has ever jumped higher than that outdoors is one Sergey Bubka. And that’s barely brushing the surface of what was surely the best European Championships ever.

That, too, is only in the stadium. Yesterday morning I finished my run in time to watch the marathon on the streets of Berlin. I loved screaming my head off in support of Tracy Barlow – someone I’ve got to know well over the last year or so – and who showed what true grit means when it comes to marathon running, finishing under a hot Berlin sun as our top British runner. 15th in Europe – and just a few years ago she was delighted to break 3 hours in the mass start in London. What an incredible journey.

I’ve also developed a total girl-crush on one Catherine Bertone from Italy. She’s 46, she finished eight, and she’s a doctor specialising in infectious diseases. Why she wasn’t running in Wonderwoman kit not the Italian colours I do not know.

And finally – not in the correct chronology of course – I went to Berlin’s Hasenheide parkrun on Saturday morning and had the pleasure of meeting up with some BTL regulars. What a fabulous course, with a sort of comedy short hill in the middle which must be in highest point in about a 400 mile radius: you really have to go out of your way to find so much as an incline in Berlin.

So, a fabulous weekend to report on for my penultimate blog. As always though, it’s all about you: come share your stories below the line.

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06 Jun

Women’s sport is on the rise. With bigger and better programmes such as This Girl Can and Couch to 5K available, and running events such as parkrun growing significantly, opportunities for women have never been greater. Media perceptions are also changing: the BBC and ITV included female pundits in their World Cup coverage and, while parity is some way off, live broadcasting of women’s football and rugby is becoming more common.

So, activity is increasing and so, too, is profile – great. Yet, despite this, there is still a barrier to participation, one so big it is often deemed unmentionable. It is the menstrual cycle. It’s something that, as a research scientist, I have put many hours into trying to understand

As a young athlete, aged 11 and still in primary school, I was horrified at the prospect of starting my menstrual cycle. I was anxious that it would get in the way of my ability to take part in sport, and was terrified of anyone finding out. I wish I had known then what I know now, and I am determined to help the next generation and offer the tools to support them.

Through my PhD, I came across many women who felt that their menstrual cycle was a barrier to regular exercise. They were full of questions: why didn’t they feel so good on certain days? Would this affect their performance? Was there anything they could do? Should they even be exercising? This is not a topic that women usually openly discuss. However, once that initial barrier was broken and they started talking about it, they were happy to chat away.

This is where I feel very fortunate to work for Orreco, a sports science and data analytics company. Orreco was co-founded in 2009 by Dr Brian Moore, a physiologist who completed his PhD under Prof Craig Sharp, widely known as the father of sports science. Here, we are determined to change perceptions and to help girls and women be active and perform throughout their menstrual cycle. Along with my colleague Grainne Conefrey, I recently created a female athlete-specific programme, and through this launched a free app, FitrWoman. This is designed to inform and educate, helping girls and women to make better decisions during their cycles.

In a recent UK-wide opinion poll of 2,000 women conducted by Populus on behalf of Orreco, 54% of participants identified that they have had to stop exercising as a result of their menstrual cycle, with this increasing to 73% in 16- to 24-year-olds. Perhaps even more concerning is the recent finding by Women in Sport that 42% of girls do not exercise when they are on their period. The poll also found that more than half of women say they are embarrassed by their periods. Is having a period really still an unmentionable “curse”?

Alongside working with elite teams and athletes, including a recent partnership with US Swimming, and having a core focus on research, the new app enables us to share evidence-based information around training, nutrition and injury risk with millions of women. It enables users not just to track their period but also their symptoms and any impact on their training, too.

Research shows that exercise can reduce negative menstrual cycle-related symptoms, and with knowledge of this and of diet, girls and women can take steps to help themselves. For example, we know that there are a number of dietary-based risk factors for increasing both pain and heaviness of flow.

Throughout the menstrual cycle, hormones are constantly changing, and the app provides users with personalised information based on this. For example, susceptibility to certain injury types has been found to vary due to the effects of the hormones on ligaments, muscles and tendons. The app provides suggestions to reduce this risk. The aim is not to make women and girls panic and stop exercising, but quite the opposite: it helps users to keep exercising throughout their cycle and to reduce risk.

The app also suggests when to focus on certain training types. Hormonal fluctuations can mean that increased benefit may be obtained from different training types at different times in the cycle. For example, a recent study found more benefit from high-intensity and resistance training in the first half of the cycle compared with the second.

Nutritional demands throughout the cycle have also been shown to be influenced by the changing hormone levels, with specific changes in the body’s primary fuel source, dependent on exercise intensity. While this information may seem a bit daunting, it is all captured in the app, where dietary advice, tips and recipes are all delivered in a very usable and simple format.

While all this information is helpful, the most popular content appears to be the explanation about what is happening in the body. From user feedback so far, we have found that women appreciate the sense of reassurance and knowledge about how they are feeling and why. Being a runner myself, I really find that having an understanding about why I may feel as I do on any one day is so beneficial. For example, if I notice changes in my body temperature, breathing rate, how strong I feel or even my tiredness, I can explain these without feeling concerned.

We like to call FitrWoman the “no excuses” app. It provides information to reduce symptoms and risk, and to help girls and women be at their best on any one day. The Populus survey also found symptoms associated with the menstrual cycle to have caused 21% of women to miss work – so perhaps the app could be applicable in other scenarios, too.

Simply put, we want to help girls and women get the best out of themselves and make smarter and more informed decisions. It is time to reclaim the menstrual cycle and make it work for us, not against us.

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06 Jun

It is 3.15am and I have just woken from a fitful four-hour sleep. I am already wearing running shorts and I quickly pull on a T-shirt and step outside. It is pitch black and my breath turns to mist in the cold air. Fasil is washing his face at the outdoor tap. He has a night off his job guarding a half-constructed building and is staying with Hailye. He beams, clearly surprised that I kept my word about joining them for this session. “Ante ferenj aydelehim,” he says. “Jegna neh”; you’re no foreigner, you’re a hero.

We jog slowly to Kidane Mehret church and down the asphalt hill in silence before Hailye turns, crosses himself and leads our first run up the hill. The only light comes from the occasional bare bulb hanging outside a kiosk. By the seventh or eighth rep, I have learned that the hilltop comes faster if you watch your feet, not the summit. After an hour, Hailye stops. “Buka,” he says. Enough. As we jog home, he tells me: “Now you should have a cold shower outside and then you should sleep. That’s going to be the most wonderful sleep.”

He was not wrong. This training session was the start of the time – six months or so after starting fieldwork with Ethiopian long-distance runners in Addis Ababa – when Fasil started telling me I was habesha, a term denoting unified, proud Ethiopia. He joked that, when I came back to the UK, I would be able to run races and say: ‘Ciao ferenj,’ at the beginning – “Bye-bye foreigners” – and win easily. “Ciao ferenj” became something of a catchphrase every time we did a good training session. So, what is specifically Ethiopian about running up and down a hill at three o’clock in the morning?

Ethiopian (and Kenyan) running success is normally explained deterministically as originating in genetics and altitude (by sports scientists) or as a result of abject poverty. In fact, as was often explained to me, it was impossible for the poorest people to try to become runners, because they were unable to devote the necessary time to rest or eat good enough food. Our barber in Addis – who had tried to make it as a runner for a few years – said: “The problem of Ethiopians is lack of money,” before adding: ‘If there was money, everybody would run.”

Travelling hours to get to the right training location is not unusual

‘It was not unusual for us to sit in a bus for two hours to get to training and take four hours to struggle home again.’

The runners I lived and trained with did not believe in talent. They believed in “adaptation”, that anyone could learn to “follow the feet” of other runners, given enough time and the right disposition. They spent hours planning training sessions, seeking the right combination of environment and company for the maximum benefit. They were constantly weighing the value of various places: the “heaviness” of the air at Mount Entoto against the expanses of grassland in Sendafa where the “kilometres come easily”. The chill of the forest against the heat of Akaki, some 800 metres lower. It was not unusual for us to sit in a bus for two hours to get to training and take four hours to struggle home again. If the environment was a factor in their success, it was not a passive “natural” advantage – runners’ engagement with their environment was active and creative.

Conversations on the relative merits of locations could go on for hours. On one occasion, I woke up on Saturday morning to find Teklemariam – who lived 20km away in Legetafo – vigorously washing his face at the outdoor tap in our compound. “What are you doing here?” I asked him, bleary-eyed at 5.45am. “I came for the hill,” he said, before adding reverentially: “It is Tirunesh’s hill,” explaining that it was where the Olympic 5,000-metre and 10,000-metre gold medallist Tirunesh Dibaba used to train.

Places are often imbued with importance because of the people who train, or trained, there. Entoto, for instance, is associated with Haile Gebrselassie, whom I was told repeatedly used to run there every morning at 5.30am. Others are significant for particular air qualities. One area of the forest was referred to as Boston, a marathon renowned for being cold, because it felt colder than other parts of the forest and because runners often trained there when they prepared for Boston marathon. The area of forest we often ran in on “easy” days was known as Arat Shi, which translates as “4,000”. I was told that this was the altitude, although it was closer to 2,500 metres.

Ethiopians will work’

Part of the reason why Hailye decided that he needed to run up and down the hill in the night was because he felt that his training had become too “comfortable”. He wanted to remind himself of the time before he had access to the team bus, when he was living on 200 birr (£6) a month. Back then, he had to wake up in the night – when there were fewer cars and people on the streets – and train in the city. Getting up at 3am was tied to a memory of poverty and wanting to do justice to his past self.

Another time, when he was suffering from typhoid, he still insisted on running in the forest. He put on two tracksuits in spite of the temperature being in the mid-20s, to “encourage sweat”. We walked slowly up the hill. “Are you sure this is a good idea?” I asked him. “It is always better to run than to sleep,” he said. ‘[Cristiano] Ronaldo will not play if he has a cold. [Gareth] Bale will not play. They will rest. Ferenj will all rest, but habesha will work.”

Several times he came to a stop, crouching and holding his forehead and complaining of dizziness. In spite of repeated entreaties to go home, he kept running, saying: “I have to struggle, I have to face it.” Running through an illness – usually with a clove of garlic up each nostril – was often portrayed as making you stronger, an attitude very much at odds with the medical viewpoint. Demonstrating a willingness to suffer and to continue without complaint was part of building “condition”.

A dominant discourse in sports science for elite endurance athletes – made famous by the Team Sky cycling team – is “marginal gains”. Examples include the team taking their own mattresses to races to ensure a good night’s sleep, or a nutritionist delivering meals to athletes’ houses. Ethiopian runners, too, place huge emphasis on rest. I was frequently told not to “do laps”, which is how people referred to walking around between training sessions, and to ensure that I slept after morning training.

My friend Fasil would often lead us on runs in the forest that left us scrabbling up almost cliff-like slopes, holding on to tree roots with our hands, or through thorny thickets that left us with bleeding legs and arms. He would also deliberately seek out the places populated most densely by hyenas, laughing and picking up a stone when we encountered one. He explained his choice of route by relating it to the tribulations of a running career more broadly: “Well, you know, it’s the forest. It has ups and downs, you can’t always find a comfortable place. You may face hills unexpectedly. Training is like that. Running is like that, you cannot run and achieve everything at the first attempt; there will be ups and downs before you are successful.”

For Fasil, to deliberately embrace risk like this was to acknowledge the long-odds, winner-takes-all nature of the sport itself. Yet, in other ways, the runners I knew seemed to accept that their results, and their progress, were only partially in their control. As Orthodox Christians, they believed that while they could cultivate a sense of virtuous suffering like that described above, this would only influence God’s plan for them to a certain extent. Asked about a poor race performance, one runner I knew – whom I expected to be upset – merely shrugged and told me that “it was obviously not God’s plan”, before adding: “Maybe if I had won that money I’d have bought a car and died in a car crash. God knows what is good for you.”

Training alone is just for health’

Ethiopian runners training together

‘To be changed, you must learn from others.’

The piece of advice that I heard most often from Ethiopian runners was that it was impossible to improve on your own. “Training alone is just for health,” I was told. “To be changed, you must learn from others.” Most runners started out in rural training camps before joining clubs and management groups in the city. Going for a run alone was almost as socially unacceptable as eating alone. Runners usually trained in a line of athletes and often “followed each other’s feet” by running in synchrony, seemingly joined by an invisible thread. Strava devotees will be horrified to hear that even GPS watches are often used communally, borrowed and swapped between members of the training group. The best training sessions were those in which energy was shared equally and everyone was seen as having done their share of the work.

Ethiopian running success

All of this is important because it emphasises the hard work, planning and creativity of Ethiopian runners. In order to join a club, runners have to get through a trial race. One runner described having to line up for a 3,000-metre track race with 80 people. He was told that the club would take the first three and that he should come back next year if he was fourth. He had to go through the same process to get from his local club to a regional one and was only able to move to Addis when he had finished on the podium in the Amhara championships several years later.

The institutional structure of Ethiopian athletics, then, is very advanced. If the UK were to support hundreds of distance runners to train full-time in such a competitive group environment, I expect we would also be a force to be reckoned with in the distance events – and UK Sport would not want that success to be dismissed as a result of poverty or British weather. To explain Ethiopian running success in terms of altitude and poverty is to define it in terms of things that Ethiopia and Ethiopian runners can’t control, which is very unfair indeed.

Michael Crawley is writing a book about Ethiopian running

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