Run stronger and race faster, by Training Slower

As strap lines go for running books ’80/20 Running’ by Matt Fitzgerald has to rank amongst the most enticing, “Run stronger and race faster by training slower”, who wouldn’t want that. But can it really be possible to become a better runner by taking it easier?

The key theme of 80/20 Running is attaining the ‘correct’ split of training intensities between low, moderate, and high and that split is (drum roll please) to spend 80% of your training time running at low intensity and the remaining 20% running at moderate or high intensity. Training schedules are planned in order to conform (roughly) to this golden division of training intensities and intensity within any given workout monitored by either perceived effort, heart rate (ideally), pace or a combination of the three.

80/20 running, Fitzgerald argues, is a matter of evolution. Over time successful athletes have had their training methods copied and coached to the next generation. Effective training practices are replicated and enhanced whilst those practices which do not stand the test of time become confined to history, having perhaps seen some success for a period but not having been able to sustain the results over time. And in this way long, slow running has become a mainstay of modern training schedules.

Intuitively the approach makes some sense; low intensity running is less likely to result in injury or a build-up of fatigue and allows for more training miles to be covered without burnout. At an individual level stamina and effective running form need time to evolve themselves and time-on-feet is clearly a significant contributor to developing both endurance and an effortless running style as the brain and body internalise the tiny movements that generate an ever more efficient and effective stride. An 80/20 approach allows the runner to enter their moderate and high intensity training sessions with a body free of fatigue. Such sessions can then deliver more significant gains in base fitness and top-end speeds.

Whether intuitive or not the beneficial effects of an 80/20 approach to training on running performance have been observed and measured at all levels of ability; amongst elite level athletes (the majority of whom – whether consciously or not – train at around this ratio) as well as right down through the non-professional ranks. Lab studies have even demonstrated the positive impacts of a ‘mostly slow’ approach on early development for non-runners as they begin to build their running habit.

The 80/20 split is evident amongst the best athletes in the world, significantly beneficial, and easy to replicate. So why aren’t more people going easy? One of the biggest things holding recreational runners back it seems might be their propensity to train at a higher than necessary intensity. A fixation on pace amongst runners is most likely to blame. To an extent that obsession might be excusable; it is pace, after all, that wins races – or earns PBs – but a fixation on pace in training means that the average recreational runner trains with an intensity split of 50/50, with only half of total training time spent at low intensity and the rest at moderate or high intensity. The average recreational runner carries more fatigue into their key workouts and derives less benefit from these sessions, has a higher risk of injury from overtraining, and sees less long term improvement because of this division of training.

All in all Fitzgerald paints a convincing picture and I plan to use one of his out of the box 80/20 training plans for the Leicester half marathon in October. By his own confession Fitzgerald is a running coach keen for you to train as often and as much as you can so the plan has workouts on each of the seven days in the majority of weeks, barring a rest day on a three-weekly cutback week. The low intensity approach however means that this might not be too much of a struggle; though I am glad I have a few weeks to work up to a training schedule which demands more commitment than I currently practice. The focus on intensity also allows for cross-training to be easily switched into any given training program. Forms such as elliptical steppers, treadmill hill walking, or cycling, which use complementary muscle groups, are recommended as by cross-training at low intensity in these forms the runner still derives much of the benefit of a low intensity run but with reduced impact and injury risk. I have never incorporated cross-training into my training but the 80/20 approach left me enthused to add it on at least one of my low intensity days.

This is the first “How to run” book I’ve read so it’s difficult for me not to get caught up in the virtues it extols. Whilst I felt like there was a little pseudo-science used to ratify the claims made the majority was based on solid empirical research and it is difficult to argue with a training approach borne out by the majority of elite athletes. There is little to do now other than practice some of what I have learned and hopefully my results and race review for the Leicester half marathon will act as a better review of the 80/20 running approach than this blog alone.

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Coventry Half Marathon – March 1st 2015

This race review contains two important confessions. Well, the first isn’t really a big deal. Simply put I’ve lost my mojo in recent months and my training has been sporadic at best. Mostly my runs have consisted of unplanned ‘get out and do it’ type runs rather than any of any particular quality – hill reps, interval sessions, and long runs abandoned in favour of lie-ins and cake. In all I only racked up 45 miles in the whole of February and my confidence wasn’t exactly high going into the Coventry Half. The plan was to run with Stu again, who I’d run with for Leicester Half back in October. We’d set our sights on a time of 1:55:00, having already revised the target down from 1:50:00 when we first signed up. We both had our reasons for targeting 1:55, and for me it would still represent a good PB, but carrying a light but persistent cold from Friday I told Stu I’d be amazed if I got anywhere near it.

I’d still felt grotty on the drive in and had near enough decided I was going to offer to pace someone rather than race for myself. But walking into the race village Stu was the first person I recognised and I was back into race mode regardless. The plan was to go out at around 8:45/mile pace and see how we got on as we settled into the pace. No one wants to blow out during a race but if you’re going to target a PB then race day is surely the best day to go for it. We shuffled into the 1:45 – 2:00 pen but got stuck at the back after an inexplicable and frustrating wait to hand my bag in at the baggage tent.

startlineselfie

Pre-race selfie. Of course.

 

The air horn to signal the start sounded and we began the customary shuffle towards the start line. Something must have gone a little wrong however because the ‘Over 2 hours’ pen joining from the left was also shuffling forward and making the march towards the start. We didn’t cross the start line until five minutes after the official start, nothing particularly unusual about that, but it was clear that many slower runners had already gone through ahead of us by then. The impact of this was first obvious when we caught up with two other runners we knew at the one mile marker, two other runners targeting a 2 hour 20 minute finish. In the first couple of miles it didn’t matter too much, the streets were broad and it didn’t require much weaving to move around the slower runners but as we left the city centre and turned down more residential streets the roads narrowed and we were penned in a lot more often than we should have been had the start been better controlled.

I don’t want this to sound like a criticism of slower runners – it isn’t – the botched start will have been just as bad for those in the ‘over 2 hour’ pen as it was for those looking to go quicker. It’s hard enough sticking to your target pace in the first few miles, it’s harder still when you have hundreds of runners racing around you at a tempo way ahead of your goal. I hope that the organisers realise their mistake for next year.

Back in the broad streets of the city centre something seemed awry as we curved around a bend and runners to our right stepped up onto the pavement. Race courses are measured along the road, veering onto the pavement surely constitutes cutting a corner, but there were no barriers, tape, nor marshals to clarify the route and through the first few miles I thought this was particularly a problem. There was not much in the way of marshalling along the entire route in fact and whilst the general course was self-explanatory enough a few more would not have gone amiss.

Through the city the course creeps gradually upwards but as you pass under the ring road and out of the centre you’re presented with the first particularly noticeable climb. Noticeable in that you get a clear view of everyone climbing it ahead of you rather than it having any real effect on your legs. Dropping down the other side you turn left into what must be one of the greyer parts of Coventry. It has to be said, if you are the kind of runner that likes to take in the scenery as you make your way along a half marathon route this probably isn’t the one for you.

 

With that I feel like I’ve painted too much dim light on Coventry Half so far so let me break from that theme to pick out one of its biggest positives, it is without doubt a fantastically well supported event. The city centre start is lined with supporters as you might expect but even as we passed through the outer limits of Coventry there were plenty of spectators happy to cheer you on and, mercifully, hand you a jelly baby or two. Whilst many races dwindle in support as you head out into the surrounding countryside there seemed to be enthusiastic cheers from every available corner of the Coventry half. There was just one stretch where the organisers had obviously anticipated it would be difficult for spectators to get to and so instead they had set up speakers and megaphones to blast you through what would have been an otherwise quiet stint.

Another of its good points was the abundance of water stations, the first nearing 3 miles and a good point to take stock of the pace we were setting. My cold hadn’t been having any real effect and we’d hit the mark pretty well up to this point so we pushed on at the prescribed pace, weaving through more congestion as the road space tightened. In fact I’m a sucker for taking water at every station I get to, and sipping it as I travel between stations, but with the regularity of the stops at Coventry I often turned up to the next one with a water pouch still in my hand. This seems to have translated into a significant bit of shoulder pain in the hours afterwards and is obviously a sign of a habit to cut out of my running.

Reaching Allesley was a particular highlight of the excellent Coventry support. There was a live band to encourage you up the hill into the village and then a street full of people enthusiastically encouraging you round the blind corner and onto another hill twice as steep. Sadists.

Reaching the top of the hill I squirted the last of a water pouch into my mouth; it hit the back of my throat and I choked it back up, nearly spluttering it all over an elderly spectator. Still, I think it got the last of my cold as my head felt a little clearer for it. The course stretched further out into the countryside and whilst the hills went down as well as up they definitely netted upwards. We eased our pace a fraction and fell a minute or so behind where we should have been.

Moving through the countryside we first caught sight of a pacers flag and whilst we couldn’t make it out we knew it couldn’t be the 1:45 pacer. The botched start had struck again and we were obviously behind the 2 hour pacers who must have gone through the start a while ahead of us. It took us a couple of miles to catch up to them and then we had to try and move through the group that were keeping pace. I got on the inside of a U-turn at mile 9 to pull alongside the pacers. I probed them for info; “what’s your watch showing?”, “is that gun time or chip time?”, “when did you go through the start gate?”.

“We’re aiming for 1:55” I told him, “Well you better get a move on then” his reply.

I took it quite personally but my questioning wasn’t getting me anywhere and Stu gave me a mental shove past the pacers and on to the final stint of the race, “trust your watch, Matt”. He was right; we’d known about the botched start, I knew our pacing had been good up to that point, and I knew that despite only now meeting up with the 2-hour pacers that we were still on course to make 1:55 – if we could reel in the little bit of slippage from the hilly first 8-miles.

Spurred into action and wanting to prove the pacer wrong I pushed on, upping my pace for the final third. Unfortunately Stu’s niggling calf tightened up but I’m grateful to him for encouraging me to push on ahead – pre-race I had prepared for it being the other way around. With 1:55 in my sights the Coventry Half route came into its own. The trudge uphill out of the city had felt cruel at the time but it paid dividends in the form of downhill on the way back in. My last two miles were the quickest two I ran.

 

Stats

Race stats – for those that are curious and/or particularly dull.

 

But perhaps my second confession as well as the downhill will go some way to explaining that. For the last mile or so the course ran back on itself back into the centre, and down the hill under the ring road. I followed a crowd of runners towards the island at the bottom of the slope. The road kinked to the right and then back round the island. Everyone in front of me cut over the pavement and onto the left hand side of the island, but surely the correct route was round to the right and then back in line? My resolve was weak and I followed the other runners over the central reservation. It’s only a matter of metres, but I’m not sure how guilty I should feel. “Who cut it first?’, ‘Why didn’t the organisers tape off the corner to enforce the right route?’, ‘If the whole roundabout is coned off maybe that route is fine?’.

 

Confession2

 The dilemma (with excellent additional illustration)

In the end I PB’d at 1:53:45, a good margin under my target and four minutes off my previous best. I could have done a whole lap of the island and I still would have PD’s under target so I think, just about, that I can put the corner-cutting problem to bed. Everyone else around me did the same, I just followed those in front, and it’s not like any of us cheated the other out of a gold medal or a million pound Quorn mince sponsorship deal. But it’s interesting what trivial things get to you in a race. Or maybe this isn’t trivial and I’ll get lambasted for it when I share this blog in public, I look forward to finding out it might just push me out and round the corner if I’m ever faced with the same situation.

 

Finishselfie

Dodgy finish line selfie. Another nice medal.

The modern-day sabbath

The concept of a weekly tech hiatus is something I’ve seen mentioned increasingly in blog posts and in podcasts recently; a sabbath from the ever intrusive modern world that we are so easily connected to, and then absorbed inextricably into. I speak from experience having whittled away many an evening refreshing Twitter, and then Facebook, and then Twitter again – with the telly on in the background. Blog posts that should take an hour to write take days because of the constant distraction of ‘other things’ going on inside the phone that’s sitting in my periphery. The goals I set rollover to next month because my hand is glued to a phone. And even though I don’t believe I watch ‘that much’ telly I know there have been countless hours lost to that as well.

 

I’m in need of a new phone and was lamenting to a friend on Friday evening how I wish I could get something that really limited my access to these easy gateways to procrastination:

 NSSb1

He’s right of course, it’s all in my control, but there’s always some little bit of news that I’m sure my 1,000 or so avid Twitter followers would be distraught to miss out on. The apps are definitely the killer as well; using Twitter through a web browser is like trying to get a hit of caffeine by drinking coffee when you could be taking it intravenously. The phone app by contrast is slick and engaging; they hook you right into the good stuff. Access to entertainment, information, or just a few hours distraction, is only ever a couple of screen presses away. I mentioned the tech sabbatical idea and ended up getting a little carried away:

 NSSb2

 And that’s how ‘No Screen Saturday’ came to be. On Friday evening I dutifully turned my phone off and hid it away in a drawer for the whole of Saturday. I shunned the telly, and even tried to avoid the radio (I’m still not sure on which side of the fence that falls).

You’ll be glad to hear I made it to Sunday intact. There’s a whole list of things I could lament having missed out on;

  • I couldn’t GPS track my parkrun in the morning (though I had a horrible run and it’s better left forgotten);
  • I wasn’t able to track my calories and nutritional split through MyFitnessPal (though I gorged on Thornton’s special toffee so also something to forget);
  • I couldn’t stream the Leicester match, nor keep tabs on the result (we won as well, so begrudgingly I’ll say that my absence was lucky – because, just in case you didn’t know, that’s exactly how football works);
  • I fretted that my tenants might not be able to get hold of me (but nothing went wrong);
  • I couldn’t join in with a rerun of an episode of ‘The Undateables’ that I’d already seen (ok, so a bullet dodged I guess).

 

Far better to think about the little opportunities that opened up to me as a result however, the things I noticed that I’m not sure I would have taken in otherwise;

  • I read, a load, as I’ve said before there’s so much time to read when you eliminate distractions;
  • I saw the moon through the skylight, the only thing visible in an otherwise clear blue sky, and was able to just take in the view (not take a photo and load it to Twitter for all those oh-so-needy followers);
  • I chatted with The Lady of the House about what we needed to get done over the rest of the weekend, about the books we were reading, about the family dog we’ve apparently adopted – and I didn’t get told off for not paying enough attention. (I’ve just asked her how I should refer to her in my blog, by name or by some inconspicuous title. She didn’t like ‘The Girlfriend’ so picked ‘The Lady of the House’ instead. Fitting I’m sure.);
  • I was peaceful. I reflected on a life unshackled, unconnected.
  • I got to eat a copious amount of Thornton’s special toffee.

 

Could I have achieved all of those things with the TV on or with my iPhone in hand? Possibly, but I haven’t been. I’m not claiming to have moved a mountain here, nor to have solved world hunger, but without the jolt provided by a hiatus from modern-day connectivity I’m not sure I would have recognised the magic in such small moments. I think it’s simply that I felt much more present in those moments as they happened. ‘No Screen Saturday’ was just one day. But it was just a day disconnected from the instant gratification of a portable news stream, disconnected from a million internet voices screaming to be heard. Just a day where I wasn’t doused with videos of people pouring buckets of water over their heads, or posting their first profile photo, or seven interesting things about themselves. Just a day silencing the noise.

I’m not going overboard here; I’m not about to throw out my phone, sell my TV, and turn off the internet; but I am affected. Even in those smallest of experiences, brought about by putting my phone down for 24 hours, I felt,… something. I’ve done my best to put my finger on what it was with this blog post but I’m still not entirely sure I’ve got to the heart of it. So, whilst there are some lessons I can take with me from my first ever ‘No Screen Saturday’ – presence is certainly one of them – I will also be eagerly looking forward to next Saturday when I can properly tap into my modern-day sabbath once again.

Life lessons from the deathbed – Tuesdays with Morrie

Steve Jobs once said in his Stanford commencement address that “if you treat each day as if it were your last, one day you’ll most certainly be right”. After his first cancer diagnosis death was no longer a useful intellectual concept but a force to be reckoned with. Morrie Schwartz also knew this. Diagnosed with ALS (motor neurone disease) Morrie knows he is going to die, and he knows it is coming some time soon. Tuesdays with Morrie charts the tale of his final days but he’s not done yet, Morrie is a professor by trade and he has some final lessons still to impart.

We broach the big questions in life; the fear of aging; relationships with friends, family, partners; the way culture affects our lives; our relationship with money; and of course, facing death. Far from giving you all the answers – and I don’t think you can really expect that of any book – it scratches at the surface just enough that you feel compelled to confront the subject yourself. Isn’t that what all good teachers do, light a fire of curiosity within you? Whilst I am sure that anyone reading this book would take their own individual lessons from it I can only talk about the elements that most deeply resonated with me, but by their nature (we’re talking the big questions here, remember) that’s a little uncomfortable to do, even across the faceless shelter of my blog.

 

One theme running through the pages is Morrie’s distaste of modern culture; the constant pursuit of a swelling bank balance, a faster car, a bigger house. “The culture we have does not make people feel good about themselves” he says. I don’t think I have ever been particularly caught up in the latter two of those examples, and though I certainly give importance to the first it is only as a means to an end. If the prevailing culture doesn’t fit then Morrie advocates creating your own sub-culture, a set of rules that sit well with you, a set of rules that make you feel good about yourself. Now there’s no need to drop all aspects of the prevailing culture, don’t go walking around the neighbourhood naked or running red lights just for the sake of shunning popular culture, there’s definitely a good reason for some of it. But you should certainly look to amend the elements that are odds with who you are as a person.

It can be difficult, decoupling yourself from the prevailing culture, especially when so many people around you – friends, family, and partners – have bought into that particular culture. It may be that this particular culture suits your friends and family, or it might be that they have never thought to stop and question it themselves, either way it’s likely you’ll come under pressure to conform. Even if you are able to pick apart the culture around you and create your own set of ideals the biggest challenge can still remain in deciding exactly what you need to do to realise that vision, and then having the conviction to make the changes necessary to get there. This is especially difficult in the face of friendly resistance. I suppose one reason this blog exists is to help me grapple with the sub-culture I want to create for myself, and now that I actually share these posts a little more openly online maybe I’ll help others discover theirs as well.

 

It won’t be news to anyone that the things you regret when you are lying on your deathbed are not the things you did but the things you missed out on. Somehow however it strikes the chord a little harder coming from the lips of a man lying on his. Morrie knew this long before he was diagnosed with ALS and he built a life filled with deep meaningful connections with many, many people. Family of course but friends and acquaintances that thought so highly of him also. I have always thought it better to have a few close friendships but the insights of Tuesdays with Morrie make the opposite feel equally appealing, as long as the connections are sincere. This gives me an area I think I’d like to work on, I know for example that there are a number of people in my wider social network that I have always admired with whom it would be great to connect with on a more personal level, but how to go about it? When in need of deep philosophical inspiration I often turn to the words of Baz Luhrmann, ‘Everybody’s free (to wear sunscreen)’,

Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle, For as the older you get, the more you need the people you knew when you were young

So this is me committing to reach out to those people I have long wanted to connect with, as well as strengthening my existing friendships in any way I can. So if anyone ever fancies a drink and a catch-up just let me know, it would be my pleasure.

This is what I meant about it being uncomfortable to blog about some of this stuff, will it all seem a bit contrived now that I’ve blogged about it? I suppose there’s a good chance that no one reads this blog and so it won’t altogether matter. And if you have read it and all of a sudden find me knocking at your door please try to be flattered and act surprised to see me, it’ll save on nasty stalking accusations.

 

Morrie’s lessons will mean different things to different people and if you’ve read it already, or choose to soon, I’d love to hear what was most important to you.

On going part time

This is the blog post I’ve wanted to write for a while, the one in which I get to talk about going part-time! Last week, after a protracted seven week process of back-and-forth, my flexible working request was finally approved and from the beginning of February I’ll be working a 32-hour, 4 day week. In fairness I only worked 35 hours a week to start with and some might argue that’s pretty much part-time anyway but dropping those extra three hours has allowed me to roll the rest into four 8-hour days and free up Fridays for time outside the office.

I’ve been looking forward to writing this blog post since before I first approached my boss with my request form in hand. Probably because I’d been thinking about it a lot longer than just those seven weeks, and definitely because I knew it would be something interesting to talk about. For once. For one reason or another though I got distracted and it’s taken me a week or so to sit down and write this down. It’s actually worked out quite well because it’s been fun to see people’s reactions when I’ve told them “my news”. Invariably this can only actually happen after I have explained that “news” does not necessarily constitute engagement or pregnancy. People’s reactions (besides putting their hat buying plans on hold) fall into one of three categories which I’ve come to interpret in different ways.

“How did you manage to wangle that, you jammy git?”

Occasionally they leave off the last bit; more often they substitute it for something stronger. I don’t really feel like I’ve wangled anything though, which is a good job because the term conjures some very peculiar images. From July 2014 everyone has been entitled to flexible working arrangements by law, I guess I was just the first to give it some real thought and consider how it could work for me. There’s a certain tone to the voice when this is people’s first reaction that suggests it is something they would also like to do. My retort has become a simple sound bite, “you only have to ask” I reply. That’s simplifying the process a little perhaps, but given some thought the first step is simply asking if it’s possible.

“Nice if you can afford it”

I haven’t actually done the math; I just figure I probably can. Maybe I’m lucky to be in such a position, but I don’t really think luck has much to do with it. It all comes down to spending less than you bring in. And since I don’t buy much ‘stuff’, and I’ve bought a house within my means, and I’ve never had a car loan (my car certainly testifies to that) then I’ve been able to sacrifice some vague portion of my salary. Being able to afford it is a matter of defining what’s important to you and whether that is stuff or whether it is time?

“Why?”

The short answer is so that I can focus on some of my personal objectives and achieve some of my life goals. My application went to appeal and I actually used Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to explain where I was coming from (finally my postgraduate diploma in management comes in handy). Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, for those that aren’t familiar with it, describes the ever increasing levels of motivating factors that humans experience. From Physiological needs such as air, water and sleep, up to Self-actualization needs concerned with realising your own self potential. The image below might describe it better than me rambling on at length (or the link above if you’re super interested). Essentially when one level falls into place and is secure the next level of needs become the motivating factor.

???????????????????????????

 

  1. Biological and Physiological needs – air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex, sleep.
  2. Safety needs – protection from elements, security, order, law, stability, freedom from fear.
  3. Love and belongingness needs – friendship, intimacy, affection and love, – from work group, family, friends, romantic relationships.
  4. Esteem needs – achievement, mastery, independence, status, dominance, prestige, self-respect, respect from others.
  5. Self-Actualization needs – realizing personal potential, self-fulfillment, seeking personal growth and peak experiences.

 

So here I am, in an appeal meeting, quoting Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and about how I need to fulfil my personal potential. Seriously. I hope I don’t sound too conceited now that I’m recounting it here, maybe. The decision to grant my request was ultimately a business decision of course but, come on, how can you deny someone the opportunity to grow as a person!? I would have been livid.

 


 

I ummed and ahed about moving to a four day week for ages. It’s a little out of the ordinary for a 29 year old (male with no kids) I guess. In the end a few things pushed me towards the edge. A conversation with a colleague about the possibilities of working part-time got me fired up about what was possible. Another colleague told me in passing to never put anything off; to always strive for what I wanted. The books I read and the videos that inspire me on YouTube preach the road less travelled. And finally on the day I handed in my request a tweet from a person I don’t know nudged me over the precipice.

So with all that in mind I want to commit to a few things in the last few words of this blog post. I’ll be using my Friday’s off to fulfil some of the niggling itches I’ve always wanted to scratch; to build my website for sharing race photos with other runners, to renovate a house, to read more, to blog more, to maybe even write a book. Don’t be surprised if the next time you see me I have a smug self-actualized glow because, if you hadn’t realised, I’m a jammy git.

 

 

 

Read on, or not…?

It seemed sensible to take a break from ‘The Speed Reading Book’ to practice what I had learned. I’d made modest gains in reading speed but I felt like I was still getting used to the techniques I’d learned to date and since the next few chapters started to delve into more advanced techniques I thought it best to put the book down and read something else with the intention of properly embedding what I had taken on so far. It’s an odd experience to put a book down midway through it. It seemed unnatural somehow, to start reading but not to finish, but I knew I needed the time to practice. It made sense so it wasn’t too difficult, but what if there’s no overwhelmingly compelling reason to stop what you’re doing.

I wanted a book to read. I’m sure speed reading skills transfer to the digital screen of a Kindle well enough but I wanted to continue in physical format for the time being. I scouted the book shelves for something to grab my interest. ‘The Secrets of Successful Selling’ seemed to fit the bill, it looked a good practice test but at the same time was something I could learn from so it wasn’t going to be all about speed but about comprehension as well. Using the speed reading techniques I’d learned I rattled through the early chapters easy enough especially as I began to feel more comfortable reading with a guide. But by the end of the first section of the book I hit a problem, I wasn’t enjoying the book, or at least I didn’t know why I was bothering to read it. OK so I’m not actually in sales and this was only a book that I’d picked up in a charity shop hoping that it would in some dovetail into that business I’m always telling myself I’m going to start but still, even if I were in sales, there wasn’t anything in the way of actionable content. This was just a recounting of how Tony Adams (author) had carved out a career in sales for himself. I pressed on to little avail; the next stage of Adams’ career, more sales – a different product, to a different type of customer – but much the same process if adapted just a little. Should I just stop reading?

I’d stopped reading ‘The Speed Reading Book’ part way through, hadn’t I? So why not do it again, this time with a book that I’m not getting anything out of. It would be a waste of time to read more when I haven’t got anything out of what I’ve read so far. But then, what about the time I’ve invested in getting into the book so far? Sunk costs can be a trap in all walks of life;

  • Things have changed and my new business venture probably won’t make as much money as I’d though, but I can’t give up on it because I’ve already invested this much money and that would all go down the drain;
  • I don’t enjoy badminton anymore but I’ve spent three years training to compete in my local league and all that time will have been wasted if I quit now;
  • I’m at a concert, it’s pouring with rain and I don’t have a coat, and this band isn’t as good live as I thought they would be anyway,… but the tickets cost me 50 quid and I’m here now anyway, if I leave early I won’t have got my money’s worth.

 

But without doubt they are a trap. They make it seem sensible to push on regardless, investing even more money, time, emotion or resource into an endeavour that brings us little in return. That money, that time, those resources are all already invested and cannot be taken back. Persevering with something just because you have already invested will not always be the right course of action, it’s important to make the best decision you can at the time given only the future costs and benefits that remain to be realised. Perhaps it’s a better idea to go and get a hot chocolate in a warm dry café than to stand at a concert in the pouring rain listening to music you’re not enjoying just because you spent £50 on concert tickets three months ago.

Some decisions might be easier than others, it’s easier to stop reading a book after investing an hour than to turn your back on a business venture after investing a chunk of your life savings, but none of them will seem easy. Knowing all this I’d like to say I prevailed, stopped reading and sent ‘The Secrets of Successful Selling’ back to the charity shop. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it, it’s so difficult to put down a book you’ve started reading, in much the same way as I have sat through many a terrible movie purely because I’d watched the first fifteen minutes. I told you it was never easy to make the sensible decision when sunk costs are involved.

 

But now it gets tricky, because yes Tony waffled on a bit longer about the progression of his sales career and how he did the same thing a little bit differently in a couple of other environments, but in amongst the final few chapters of ‘The Secrets of Successful Selling’ were hidden some actual useful nuggets of information about how to make a sale. Recounting them here would seem a little out of place given the direction this blog post has taken. Reading ‘The Secrets of Successful Selling’ has served more to get me to think about the merits of reading or not reading a book than it has for any providing content worth sharing.

The niggling fact is that after deciding that ‘The Secrets of Successful Selling’ probably wasn’t worth reading further, and then reading it anyway, it turned out to have some useful content after all. If I had stopped reading and put the book down I wouldn’t have uncovered those nuggets. Does this mean I should read every book cover to cover? Books don’t tend to get published if they are entirely devoid of content (although I may live to regret that statement given the simplicity of self-publishing these days) so am I really in a position to judge a book, based not just on the cover but even on the first 40 pages or so? Throw into the mix that my reading speed has definitely improved as a result of ‘The Speed Reading Book’ (I estimated a 500wpm reading speed over a 40 page stint of ‘The Secrets of Successful Selling’) and maybe reading a book cover-to-cover to extract just a single nugget of usable information is not such a high price to pay.

But then there’s opportunity cost; I have the choice to read an entire book for one nugget of information, or to ditch it and switch to a different book which may yield two, three, or many more actionable pieces of advice. The latter certainly sounds more appealing, although I suppose the next book could turn out to be lacking in content also. More than anything maybe this experience has been a lesson in the importance of previewing and understanding the content of books before you read them. If you are convinced that the book includes actionable content before you even read the first full page then perhaps that should form your opinion throughout – a kind of ‘buy and hold’ strategy for reading. I did preview ‘The Secrets of Successful Selling’; there was a contents page but no real detail about what each chapter delivered; there was no summary at the end of chapters about what had been learnt; no set of action points. It should have rung alarm bells. Even when it didn’t the 40 pages of bland life story probably should have been enough. In the end the content I did take from it just wasn’t worth the effort. I should have quit.

I think it’s time to review my bookshelves. Yes, there’s a sunk cost to these books – I paid good money for some and have never read them, but if I’m never going to read them, or if they’re out of date, or no longer of interest to me then it’s likely they are better off sold or donated. To hell with the sunk costs, it’s time to get choosy.

Speed reading – part 1

With my ambition to read more out in the public domain and the fires stoked by the first book on my reading list I wanted to dive into whatever was next. I keep a short list of books that have crossed my path and peaked my interest and with an Amazon Kindle at my disposal I always have the option to have an e-book delivered at a moment’s notice. As it happens though I’ve built up quite a pile of physical books which have sat unread on bookshelves for many a month or year, I expect almost everyone does, and it’s some of this backlog I wanted to get through to start with.

At the top of my list, and on the top of a pile of books, was ‘The Speed Reading Book’ by Tony Buzan. After all, if I’m going to read a book a week I might as well read them quickly. It is, as you might well guess, a course in speed reading that introduces tips and techniques to help improve your reading speed, interspersed with self-tests to assess your reading speeds and comprehension as you apply the techniques. I’ve seen early results but have decided to break from the course for a while to apply the techniques learned so far in some more general reading before moving on to more advanced techniques. I want to share the best of those techniques with you but I also need to put speed reading into context.

The first of the self-tests comes fairly early on so as to establish your baseline reading speed and comprehension rates. I am average. And I expected to be, if not worse. Most adult readers read at an average rate of 200-240 words per minute (wpm), I score 228 – so maybe I am at least in the top 49% if I’m lucky! In contrast though the average 16 year old also reads at that sort of speed, and whilst speeds improve up to around 400 wpm in readers studying for a post-graduate degree. But given the drop back to an average of around 200 wpm once study has finished this it turns out is linked more to the volume of reading required for study than a marker of intelligence.

I score 13 out of 15 on a comprehension quiz at the end of the chapter. It’s a decent score and if I’m interpreting the data correctly puts me in at least the top 1% for that metric. But I’m wary that it’s a 15 question quiz, with a healthy dose of True-False questions, and that I got through a bunch of them on gut-feel alone. Still it gives me a nice high bar to maintain as I try to improve my reading speed and if I come crashing down on my next quiz I know I’ve either read too quickly for comprehension or that I’m not as special as this first quiz would have me believe!

 

If 200 wpm is average and if most people when given the need can reach 400 words per minute then what exactly does ‘speed-reading’ look like? And what are my own personal goals? I’m starting close to the 200 wpm mark and with the amount of reading I expect to do 400 wpm certainly doesn’t seem out of reach. Let’s call it 450 wpm then, a doubling in my original reading speed would mean I could read a book in half the time it would have taken me previously. Half!! That’s mind-blowing. The layout, font size, and form of ‘The Speed Reading Book’ is fairly typical of the books I read. The self-tests mean I can roughly estimate that it has 300 words per page, it’s 200 pages long, 60,000 words in total. At my baseline reading speed, uninterrupted, it might take me nearly four and a half hours to read it cover to cover. A page takes more than a minute to read. Double that reading speed to 450 wpm and I save myself nearly two and a quarter hours. I could read a whole other book, or blog about the one I just read, or run a half marathon, or watch an entire film in the time I just saved. Mind blowing.

But there’s more, 400 wpm only really gets you to the top of normal. The top 1% can read at speeds of 800-1000 wpm, 3-4 times faster than my baseline. Imagine reading an entire book in a little over an hour, three pages a minute instead of just one. 1 in 1000 people read at speeds above 1000 words per minute, the speed-reading world record is 4251 words per minute. That’s almost unbelievable. And that’s not just skimming through and saying, “yep, I’ve read that”, to set a world record you also have to demonstrate comprehension by reviewing the book you’ve read.

In terms of my own goal 450 wpm is definitely a milestone marker, but that top 1% is definitely a shiny object glinting in the corner of my eye. I feel another SMARTS objective coming on.

 


 

But how exactly am I going to get there. By the sounds of it I could probably just about hit that first goal of 450 wpm by throwing myself into my reading and giving my eyes and brain the opportunity to get there. Buzan certainly cites motivation and practice amongst the key principles. The brain and eyes are like muscles, he says, given training they will improve. But I’d probably be really annoyed if I bought a speed-reading book and its major conclusion was, ‘read more and you’ll get faster doing it’ and besides that would take time to develop so surely applying Buzan’s speed-reading techniques will deliver gains faster and set the foundations not only to reach that first milestone of 450 wpm but also to move beyond that into the top 1% of the population.

The introduction to ‘The Speed Reading Book’ suggests that you preview the content; go through the book, read the headings, sub-headings, chapter outlines, skim any content that particularly catches your eye, graphs and images. Get a lay of the land. It’s a great first step, your brain fills in some of the connections between chapters and topics automatically so that as you begin to read proper you experience a sense of treading familiar territory. It’s also quite a frustrating thing to do, sub-vocalisation is introduced as a potentially limiting factor within the first few chapters. It’s where you speak the words inside your head as you read them, you may or may not do this (are you right now!?), but I know I certainly do. And thanks to my preview I know that one of the last few chapters in the book looks at how this can be addressed, but do I skip right there now or should I read the book in the order it was intended? I expect that by the end of the book I will have more confidence in skipping to different sections of books as they seem relevant, for now I’ve committed to reading the book in the order of its pages,… I can definitely see the benefit of previewing then, for the context it forms, and maybe one day for the opportunity to pick out the really key parts and read those first. If that’s even necessary when you can read a book in 30 minutes!

So if I’m not able to work on sub-vocalistion what techniques am I able to apply instead? I suppose Buzan is the expert and I place my faith in him picking out the simple to apply steps that are going to return significant improvements in the early stages. He introduces the concept of back-skipping and regression. Back-skipping is where the eyes subconsciously dart about the page, back along the line you’ve already read. Maybe you read the same words twice, but you didn’t really need to. Regression is a conscious decision to re-read something, be it a word, a sentence, or a whole paragraph. Perhaps you haven’t quite taken it in or grasped the concept. But, Buzan argues, the brain is smart – and I’m sure it is – it doesn’t really need a second look, don’t allow it one. Force yourself to read forward and eliminate this habit as best you can. I find when I’m doing this that on the occasions when I misread or skip a word it doesn’t really matter, either my brain has taken it in on a subconscious level or the surrounding sentences give overall context and fill in the blanks. “Just keep swimming” as Dory says in ‘Finding Nemo’ – A particularly odd quote to pop into my head right at this moment but somehow fitting.

A related point is how your eyes move along a line of text, jumping in fixations from one word to the next and, in the case of back-skipping and regression, back along the page at inconvenient times. Having eliminated back-skipping fewer fixations, taking in three words at a time rather than s single word can also yield dividends. It’s difficult to practice this, I think, although it’s easier to try to fixate on each individual syllable of a sentence and see how the opposite approach can really slow you down. Try it now:

“Con cen tra ting  on  el im in a ting  back-skip ping  for ces  you  to  take  in  bigg er  chunks  of  text  more  nat u rall y”

Slow going wasn’t it, but push forward and you’ll find yourself digesting two or three words at a time far more easily.

 

I take another self-test my reading speed improves 20% to 275 wpm.

My comprehension drops to 10 out of 14 on the comprehension quiz and drop to 72%. Again I take it with a pinch of salt and am not too disheartened.

Next we are introduced to the ideal settings for speed-reading but I’m yet to implement them. For now I’m too comfortable on the sofa to sit at a dedicated reading desk. Though as I make a few notes in a separate notepad I appreciate that it would be far easier sitting in the right environment. I have at least become more aware of how lighting affects my ability to read. The shadows that are cast on my book if I’m not sat in the right chair with light from the right angle. I keep my phone out of sight to prevent distractions.

And the final easy to introduce step in improving your reading speed, learning to read like a child. I’ve taken a manual handling course at work and they play you this video of toddlers lifting up soft play blocks and moving them across the room. They assess the object they’re about to lift to make sure they can, they bend their knees to lift, they keep a straight back and keep the item close to them, and they do it all in reverse to put it back down again. Perfect lifting form, exactly as nature intended. More often than not we get sloppy as adults and we lift with our hips and back. I wonder how much children do right that gets drummed out of them by conditioning or design? Learning to read with your finger pressed on the page seems natural but it’s soon drummed out of you at school. In speed reading however using a guide can yield improvements. Running a chopstick, knitting needle, or narrow pencil along the page just below the line you are reading can help to maintain focus and ultimately to push you along just a little bit faster than you might. If all else fails do as a child would do and use your finger. Other guides are recommended because your fingers are broader and the palm of your hand will block a big portion of the page that your eyes would otherwise be taking in and processing subconsciously.

I take another self-test, close to another 20% improvement to 323 wpm

My comprehension score bounces back to 14/15, 87%. I’m scoring consistently high so place a little more faith in my achievement more than luck. Although maybe the tests are just easy and everyone scores well.

Most people when asked to estimate their reading speed draw a line in the air with the end of their finger which equates to around 400wpm. The brain fires at a rate far faster than the rate that most of us actually read at. I think this is the reason I have found it difficult to adjust to using a pencil as a guide, I tend to move the pencil across the page a good bit faster than I feel comfortable with! Maybe it’s the sub-vocalisation that still limits me, although perhaps not as I’ve noticed this practice starting to fade away. I feel more comfortable skimming over some words on the page having found some faith that I am taking it all in subconsciously and that my brain is using context to fill in everything around it. As I do this I find myself sub-vocalising less despite the fact my comprehension remains high. I still look forward to reaching that chapter but perhaps by that stage it will be something I have entirely eliminated anyway. I can only assume Buzan knew what he was doing all along!

It feels odd to have written about a book that I haven’t finished reading yet. Odder still to have written over 2000 words on the matter. But I have reached a point in the book where it is about to step up a gear into some advanced techniques. Scanning pages rather than reading them, reading multiple lines at a time, reading backwards across the page,… I feel like I have learnt the fundamentals and I think that will take me at least close to the 450 wpm milestone but I feel like this is the perfect time to break from ‘The Speed Reading Book’ and apply what I have learnt on something else. I will be able to estimate word counts and create my own self tests as I read through a book on a different topic so my hope is that by the time I come back to ‘The Speed Reading Book’ I will have comfortably doubled my original reading speed and be ready to take aim at the top 1%.

I said earlier that I felt another SMARTS objective brewing so here it is:

It is July 1st 2015, aided my other objective to read a book a week in 2015 I have reached reading speeds in excess of 1000 wpm. I re-read ‘The Speed Reading Book’ in under an hour

I blogged about SMARTS objectives previously: Liquid Thinking – On reading more and setting objectives