Category Archives: strength

How Green are my Movements? 100 Days of Data

It is worth reflecting on HOW you move

Global warning: This conversation might make you plan your life towards benefiting the planet.

Quick Background

With a clear interest in protecting the health of our planet, and a strong belief that data tells us more than what we would ‘choose to remember’, I started collecting data about my transportation modes at the start of this year. Yesterday was the 100th day of the year. Here are some thoughts on the subject that I felt were worth sharing with you.

Since the Summer of ‘69

“Mummy” is no longer a mode of transport for me

In the summer of ’69, my father was navigating a Boeing-707 flight from London to New York that he did on a weekly basis when my mother packed her bag in their home in London, dropped my elder sisters off at a friend’s and drove to the hospital where I was born a few hours later. Apparently, my father was pleased when he was given the news, “it’s a boy”, upon landing at JFK Airport.

A few years later, growing up in Mumbai, I loved cycling, and although my father drove a British car on Indian roads, we were always encouraged to walk wherever we could. Those were the 70s and 80s, times when even the upper middle classes, if they owned a car, typically owned just one.

Cycling back from lectures

Moving ahead in time, as a student of engineering and management at the University of Cambridge I learned a fair amount about inefficient modes of transport from a ‘green perspective’. In fact, since the start of motorized transport, the rule at that university was “no cars permitted for undergraduates” and so, no matter what your social status, you would typically move around Cambridge by bicycle or foot. Whether it was to the boat house to row early in the mornings, or to parties in colleges across town, the common feature about the transport was green. The environmental benefit of such a culture will be obvious to you even if you were to visit Cambridge this summer.

Mumbai: when motorized transport is so slow, pedestrians will walk on the road (PC: Mid Day)

Mumbai: when motorized transport is so slow, pedestrians will walk on the road (PC: Mid Day)

Moving ahead another 30 years, back in Mumbai today, it is awful to see how the city has only become worse in many respects, as each decade has rolled by. One of these, familiar to anyone who has spent even a few hours in the city, where I spend a good chunk of each year, is the terrible state of roads, and inefficient use of public money. The popular media has published many reports [see this for an example from 9 years ago, and this one more recent] on how most tax dollars are spent on providing facilities for the limited number of car users when in fact the largest percentage of travel is done by public mass transportation (bus, train, metro) or bicycle and foot. What makes the situation sadder still is that despite the disproportionate allocation of tax money to the roads, those roads are in a terrible state and the transport on them crawls along – and that is when it does move! May God help you if you need an ambulance for an emergency in that city!

From BMW to Bicycle

With many claims to be green and being someone who generally likes to walk his talk, I thought it would be interesting to collect broad level data on my transport modes. My first car 24 years ago was a BMW but for the last 10 years I have not owned a car. In Mumbai, I own a bicycle instead. I have a strong preference for ‘as green a form of transport as possible’. Public transport is not particularly comfortable in Mumbai but I have typically opted for a bit of personal discomfort to benefit the city.

Bombay Bustle – Bicycles Faster than BMW

Data Collection and Behaviour Change

Normally, the commencement of data collection about oneself tweaks one’s behaviour (for instance, there is some evidence that those who weigh themselves daily, tend to lose more excess weight than control groups who don’t). Because of my choices for many decades now to minimize my carbon footprint from transportation, there was no sudden change in my travel methods. In my on-going quest to understand myself, the data simply gives me a better handle on my claims about being greener than the next guy stuck in traffic.

Simple Data Collected

Easy to record the data every night

All I recorded each day was the number of different journeys I did and their modes of transport. Often to meet someone, I might cycle to the station, take the train, and then walk at the other end. In many European cities that is not unusual at all. In Mumbai, a city that could really do with what I call CTW (cycle-train-walk) it is very unusual – especially for those who live in million dollar homes!

What I recorded was simply a count of the number of journeys, not the kilometres travelled. Given that the two transcontinental flights that I did take in February were of 8000km length each, whereas most of the bicycle journeys are for just a few Km, the story would be quite different if represented by carbon footprint. Having said that, there are clearly some journeys that cannot be done by greener modes of transport. Mumbai to London for a week with family is one of them!

How Green are my Numbers?

Breakdown of # Journeys by Mode of Transport for 100 days

How Bad am I?

I could be doing much worse

At first I felt terrible that I was not at 90% green. But then it struck me that I was still doing a lot better than most well-educated and reasonably wealthy people in pretty much most of the urban centres of India. Not that they ought to be anyone’s benchmark, but still.

What can you do?

You must not leave it up to your government to make the change you want to see. Even as I clicked on “Publish” for this article, I received this news snippet from a friend. If the news reporting is correct, it is tantamount to expecting people to eat less because grocery stores are shut on a Sunday. No, I’m sorry, that will not work!

Wherever you live, and in everything you do, you always have hundreds of choices daily. Every decision that you make that helps the planet, will help you in the long run. You might think that ‘since the bus is going there anyway, I might as well ride it’ is a green choice. But even getting off a stop earlier and walking 500m does have a positive impact on the planet. Whenever you are green, you can probably go even greener. If you collect data about yourself, you are more likely than not to make wiser decisions. I urge you to try that.

It is not about competing with your neighbour

Although it is not a bad idea to compete with your neighbour to be greener (why care what he drives!) you should keep your focus on simply becoming better yourself. Once you appreciate that everything you do has a definite impact on the only planet you have, you will make other changes that are better for your own health too. For instance, unless you are predominantly plant food and drink (please say NO to milk whenever you can!) human it is likely that giving up meat and dairy (yes, Mrs Vegetarian, give up milk – it did not come from a plant!) will have an even bigger positive impact on the planet than taking that bicycle to work. Better still, do both!

My Lucky 13

Today is day # 101 of the year 2017. I plan to take my son to an afternoon appointment a few kilometres away. He is visiting from London after 2 years but is comfortable cycling wherever we need to go in Mumbai. If he can do that at age 13, I reckon that just about everyone in this city can.

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Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.

Attempting Work-Life-Balance? Instead, plan for Time-Optimized-Living

Daily Work-Life-Balance is great, but what about Time-Optimized-Living?

Daily Work-Life-Balance is great, but what about Time-Optimized-Living?

Happiness warning: This conversation might make you plan your life towards greater lifelong joy.

From Work-Life-Balance to Time-Optimized-Living

I hope you have what the world calls ‘work-life-balance’. Perhaps you have figured out some method in your busy life that works for you in achieving that. But what if you are still missing something? Something much bigger that you had not given much thought to! In fact, I am willing to bet that the vast majority of people with ‘work-life-balance’ are missing what I think is of greater and overriding importance. So, today, I am going to talk to you about what I call ‘time-optimized-living’. I will also suggest a few tips for your journey towards achieving it.

I am addressing Everyone

This topic is of relevance to everyone. I consider myself lucky to have friends with accomplishments in various domains. Blockbuster movie stars, championship sportsmen, international sportswomen, fashion models, poets and book authors, award winning surgeons, globetrotting dentists, journalists, tech entrepreneurs – the list can go on…

As I state very clearly to billionaires or to those with a millionth of that, we all have only 24 hours in the day, but we don’t all have the same number of days. And it’s not clear that for a given 24 hours, that each of us spends it wisely. Yes, we all do things that we think maximizes our happiness (and often it doesn’t even do that). And, yes, we all try to do it with intelligence – but do we do it wisely?

Time is Money – Demonetization in Different Currencies

Thank God I’ve had a lot of minutes!

I am quite obsessive about time and how I use it. Besides being disciplined about punctuality with meeting times, I like to keep track of how my time is used once a meeting commences. Humans are not naturally programmed to have a supremely optimal handle on time. Besides the circadian clock that is controlled naturally by the light-dark cycles driven by the earth’s rotation, human perception of the passage of time is very subjective. That subjectivity is captured beautifully by Einstein’s quote about a pretty girl, a hot stove and the passage of time. Most of this relates to short time spans – a minute, an hour, a day, a week or even a year. But what about longer periods – multiple years, decades or even large lifetime fractions? Unfortunately, the phenomenon of mishandling time, at a practical level, gets worse – for individuals and, therefore, for society.

You WILL die – you WILL leave it all behind

I would like you to now internalize this ultra-simple graphic of your financial life. Whether you are one of my billionaire friends or one of my friends who struggles to make ends meet, ignoring debate about the slope or the lengths of any of the lines, this pretty much captures it succinctly. What is clearly not up for debate is that you came to this life with nothing and you will go with nothing.

A picture worth remembering

Satisfying our Professional Passions or Hobbies

Partly because of the need to survive and thrive, but mostly because corporations tell us we need to do it, we spend a very large part of our adult years uncontrollably engaged (I wrote ‘enslaved’ and as an afterthought changed it to ‘engaged’) in some form or the other by the corporate world. Whether we have very satisfying professional careers, whether we started off our adult lives with large amounts of endowed wealth or whether we build profitable businesses from scratch ourselves over decades, the connection to the world of business is strong. And that is perfectly fine, as long as there is balance. And by ‘balance’ I mean balance in all time-intervals of life. In that ‘all’ lies the key to my message.

Do you think working to make too much money is risky?

Work-Life-Balance does NOT necessarily imply Time-Optimized-Living

We are all aware of the general idea of ‘work-life-balance’. Whether your business is in New York and pays lip service to it, or in London and encourages it, or in Mumbai and doesn’t care about it, you will have a decent idea of what it means – even if you do not have it. We even have businesses that are built around that concept (hey, why work in the kitchen when you can order in, with a few clicks on your smartphone? never mind that this habit will kill you slowly).

Now, here is the central point of my chat today. What I would like to draw your attention to is the distinct possibility that, perhaps, if you focus on daily or weekly work-life-balance, you are highly susceptible to incorrectly reaching the conclusion that you have achieved a state of time-optimized-living – balance across the time span of, not a working day, or a work week, but over your expected lifetime. Although work-life-balance is very important, it is only one, perhaps necessary, component of time-optimized-living – it is not time-optimized living.

We think we have a good handle on certain time spans

Mind you, if you do not even have work-life-balance then it is near impossible that you have time-optimized-living. I have friends, some younger than I am, who have shortened their lives significantly with the false belief that a terrible lifestyle to accumulate financial assets is some form of time-optimized-living. Intelligence being applied, I’m sure, but wisdom, not!

Do not let it be a vague fear; face it, deal with it, and then move on

Money has Time Value, Time has Money Value, in all Denominations

In my career as a finance professional I have been fortunate in being able to work in settings where the intellectual focus of problem solving has spanned across time horizons of micro-seconds to multiple decades. Typically, in any of these settings, at any future horizon under consideration, the typical goal is to maximize benefits with respect to the costs incurred. Whether it is to execute thousands of stock-portfolio trades a minute, or set strategic asset allocations for pension funds with future promises to beneficiaries, 70 years from now, the problem statement is clear – maximize profits, minimize shortfalls, keep costs low.

In my years of advising professionals on their career plans or individuals on their wellness, it is evident that, as humans with cognitive biases of all kinds, we do not necessarily optimize across all the relevant horizons in optimal ways. Because the human species is not specifically designed to do this well, that is nothing to be ashamed of. However, the “wise person” inside of you ought to be extremely conscious of it – that ‘awareness‘ is the first step to positive change. Being focused on daily or weekly ‘work-life-balance’ without also paying attention to lifelong time-optimized-living is similar to studying very diligently for medical school entrance exams when, in fact, you want to major in computer science! You might even get into and go through medical school, but you will have thereby missed the big picture of where your true happiness might lie.

Practical Tips for Thinking about Your Solution

Everyone has different circumstances, so a one-size-fits-all solution cannot work. However, the problem-solving framework for every one of us can be common. Here are just a few tiny pointers on the heavy stones in your bag.

Financial

Create a simple spreadsheet model that simulates your future financial wealth. It needs to have just a few columns, for example:

[1] month (e.g. May-2019)
[2] future income
[3] future expenses
[4] their difference i.e. monthly savings and
[5] accumulation of savings shown in [4].

Even a simplistic approach such as this is extremely powerful in the insights you will gain. You can even assume, to get started, that your investment return on savings will be 0%. Once you have set it up going out into the future, you will begin to place appropriate weight on the true risks of living with less wealth. In fact, if you do not do this, you run the risk of focusing on the accumulation of too much wealth beyond your needs! It might seem odd that someone with a doctorate in Finance is suggesting that you worry about the risk of accumulating too much wealth, but the actuary in me is saying precisely that!

When was the last time you knew someone yourself who died penniless? On the other hand, when was the last time you knew someone who died with a fair amount of wealth left behind? My guess is that the former is quite rare and the latter very common. Food for thought, eh!

In many urban cultures (e.g. Indians, Chinese) there is a popular lifegoal of working towards leaving ‘a separate home for each of the kids’. If that were to happen for you by chance, that’s great. But to have that as a general goal, to me, is clearly unwise. As for ‘wedding costs’, if you are reading this, you are from a socio-economic background that would normally imply that your child should be able to have a wedding that they can afford for themselves. Pay for a decent well-rounded education, and that’s all.

Medical

A very real fear that many humans have is that of healthcare costs when they’re much older. Given that physical health is so closely tied to mental, emotional and spiritual health, this is a concern that I do think you should take seriously, especially because it pertains directly to you – and not to someone else in your generation, previous generation, or future generation (see previous points about leaving homes for your kids or paying for their weddings). The vast majority of my conversations with you over the last few years have been about precisely this aspect – your physical existence and, if you’ve been paying close attention, to other dimensions of your existence.

The best medical insurance you can get for yourself is an improved lifestyle! Anything you pay for over and above that in term of insurance premiums should really be just for the unexpected large medical problems. [Note, of course, medical insurance companies do not exist to make your life easier, they exist to make profits for their shareholders. So, watch out for exclusions, deductibles, sum insuredsub-limits and other features that might leave you ‘open to risk’ when you are least prepared for it.]

Recently, an old friend who was forced to quit what he described as “the corporate banking rat race” wanted to get back into it very soon because, in his own words, “I will get medical cover”. Besides the numerical value of providing that perk being meagre (cost of medical insurance being small in the grander scheme of things) it was going to ‘allow’ him to continue complacently down the same path of unhealthy living that he had been taking for decades. Please do not get me wrong – I have nothing against working for large corporations per se; what I am against is unhealthy living – across all time horizons!

It is not easy, but it is definitely not impossible

If I were to grade the people whose lives I know fairly well, on a scale of 0-to-100 for time-optimized-living, they would span that entire range. Even the wisest urban yogis will not get very close to 100. And, perhaps, the most intelligent among us is closer to zero! Developing wisdom will help us get closer to 100. But, we have to work towards it, on a daily basis. It definitely doesn’t just happen overnight – even if you have had a sudden and unexpected heart attack!

Although I talk about lifelong time spans, do not leave it until some future day. Whether you die later tonight, or 10 years from now, you will go with nothing. You have been guaranteed that. Get started with a plan for time-optimized-living today.

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Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.

Race Start Logistics – Chaos, Flow and Entropy

Should you really be up front in the crowd at the start line?

Have you ever run one of the big races in India like the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon (SCMM) or the Airtel Delhi Half Marathon (ADHM) and had varying experiences about the ‘flow of crowd of runners’? As the number of racers has grown and the increased focus on logistics for handling them has tried to avoid making a mess and avoid a human catastrophe, I have been curious about the flow of runners at the start and its subsequent impact along the route. Today’s conversation, with some interesting pictures, is about that. Takeaway lessons for you, racer, pacer or race organizer, will come soon.

Roadmap

I will first talk about the distribution of runners and how it transitions from start line to finish line. I then introduce you to my idea of ‘disorder’ in a race, with a measure that I call the Race Entropy, and show how that beautifully captures the flavour of the ease of flow within a race. I use the case of the Mumbai races (SCMM) to show how start-enclosures have helped with achieving less disorder (but significant room for improvement exists). I also show what impact the extreme pollution scares in New Delhi last winter had on the race that was held at that time (ADHM2016).

Gross Time, Net Time, Mat Crossing Time

I have shown you numerous graphs in the past of race finish times. These are typically histograms of ‘net finish times’ that show how many runners cross the finish line within each time bucket, where each bucket might be just a few seconds wide. What you will have probably never seen until today is a similar picture of what happens at the starting line.

How do we spread ourselves out over time?

Because not everyone crosses the starting line at the same time, there is a ‘spreading out’ or ‘distribution’ over time of runners crossing the starting line. This distribution is what leads to the need for recording gross finish time and net finish time.
The gross time is based on the natural clock time – the same clock for all the runners.
The net time is the specific time taken for each individual runner measured as, starting at their specific start line crossing (time = 0) and ending at their crossing the finish line.
Many races have RFID timing sensors placed under mats over which runners pass at the start/finish line, and so we often use the terms ‘starting line’ and ‘starting mat’ interchangeably.

Easing Flow

If your race’s logistics are handled smoothly, the fastest runners would be placed right up front at the start line and the slowest runners placed towards the back of the crowd. In the extreme scenario of the runners being released in descending order of their speed, in the hypothetical situation of constant speed for each runner, the number of ‘overtakings’ would be 0. No one would overtake anyone despite everyone running at their race pace. This would ensure a smooth flow of humans across the starting line and thereafter.

Smooth flow of runners ranked in order of speed

In practice, although it ‘feels good’ to overtake other runners, the truth is that it always involves some risk. Besides the physical risk (of impact) if the runner being overtaken sends you negative thoughts as you try to glide past him, that cannot be good for your soul.

Consider now, the worst situation for race start ordering, the slowest runner being placed right up front and the fastest runner at the back of the pack. In the extreme situation of N runners placed in such a reverse order of their speed, the fastest runner would have to overtake N-1 other runners to finish 1st. The runner who comes in second would have to overtake N-2 runners to come in 2nd. And so on for all the other runners… And, therefore, {ignoring the school maths proof}, the total number of ‘overtakings’ for all N runners would be ½*N*(N-1). Let us call that measure MaxPossibleOvertakings – e.g. for 10,000 participants placed in this reverse order MaxPossibleOvertakings will be 49,995,000.

Flow disrupted when runners not ranked in order of speed

For any given race with an actual ordering at the start line, we can also easily add up the minimum number of ‘overtakings’ that would have led to the actual finish ranking observed. Let us call this MinPossibleOvertakings.

Having defined a measure for the actual starting/finishing rankings of runners and the theoretical measure with maximum disorder, let me now tell you about what I call the ‘Race Entropy’ of an event. If numbers or equations faze you, hang in there, there’s nothing particularly complicated in what follows.

Entropy

Borrowing from Thermodynamics, I define the measure of disorder in a race as being the ratio

Entropy – a measure of disorder in your race

If the runners are released in the perfect ranking of their eventual times, so that there will be no overtaking, the Race Entropy will be 0.
If the runners are released in the perfectly reverse order, the Race Entropy will be 1.
If the ordering is purely random chance, the Race Entropy will be approximately ½.
We hope that the Race Entropy for any race will be less than ½ and closer to 0.

Start-End Ranking Plot

We can also visualize this order and disorder with what I call a Start-End Ranking Plot – a rank for crossing the finish line plotted against the rank for crossing the start line. This example plot shows the two ends of [1] perfect order and [2] perfect disorder as well as [3] the case of purely random start ordering.

Start-End Ranking Plot: Avoiding disorder or wrong order is a worthy effort

Start-End Ranking Plot: Avoiding disorder or wrong order is a worthy effort

With this distilled single measure of disorder, Race Entropy, and the Start-End Ranking Plot, let us now examine a couple of interesting stories from the Indian recreational marathon scene.

Case 1 – Chaos to Order: Introduction of Enclosures for SCMM

The first year that I happened to run a distance race, quite by chance, was the flagship Mumbai Marathon in 2010 (SCMM2010). I remember being at the start line and witnessing the undignified pushing and jostling. It was pretty much ‘law of the jungle’ up there akin to the local trains I took to work daily. It was a free-for-all, first-come-first-serve type start, so everyone pushed up ahead, with no real attention to ordering themselves naturally by expected finish time.

Race Start Enclosures

Race start enclosures or ‘holding areas’ were first introduced to the Indian running scene in January 2012, at the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon. These enclosures, now common in the races with large numbers of participants, are set up with the philosophy that the fastest runners are kept together and typically go past the start line first, the slowest ones last, and the ones in-between following the same principle. In order to decide which start-enclosure you wait in before you start the race, race organizers request a recent race timing certificate from you at the time of registration. Based on this ‘previous timing certificate’ you, the customer, are allocated a start enclosure, specified visibly on your racing bib.

Pre/Post Enclosures

Start Enclosures help ensure reduced Race Entropy (disorder) despite an increase in competitors

If we examine the difference between 2010 & 2011 compared with 2016 & 2017 there is a noticeable reduction in Race Entropy despite the number of participants rising. Having seen the Race Entropy drop between 2010 to 2017 despite the massive increase in participation, we can see the Start-End Ranking Plot which corresponds to those numbers and the picture tells us the same story.

Comparing the Start-End Ranking Plot for 2010 with that from 2017 indicates a clear move away from high disorder towards greater order.

Population increase need not be a problem if mismanagement is replaced by better management!

Case 2 – Pollution Reduces Race Participation: Massive Reduction in Delhi Disorder

The flagship race of New Delhi, soon after the worldwide scares in the media about the city’s air pollution levels at the end of 2016, saw a massive reduction in actual participation on race day (ADHM2016). My simple but sensible estimation method tells me that 40% of those who had paid and were registered to race did not show up on race day. This is almost always fortunate for the race organizers and those who do show up to run. The race experience is always better for such large races when the turnout is lower {fewer people chasing the same resources including, quite literally, air, water and land}.

What did the fearless who turned up experience?

What is interesting is that the Race Entropy was so much lower (20.3%) than in 2012 (32.0%) when the ADHM first introduced start enclosures. It was also considerably lower than the previous year where in ADHM2015 the Race Entropy was 26.8%. Perhaps, the general time trend in Race Entropy shows that the running population itself is becoming slightly mature and sensible as a group about the race start. For ADHM2016, it is possible that a predominance of experienced runners showed up and many of the newer runners stayed away. Or, perhaps, managing fewer runners with arrangements for many more (who did not show up) induces lower Race Entropy (lower disorder). All my friends who ran ADHM2016 had a fantastic experience. As luck would have it the weather was (described by a mentee who ran) ‘absolutely perfect’ and my guess is that the reduced disorder added to a better overall experience.

Pollution Scares: Did the drop in crowding make humans more relaxed and reduce irrational crowding?

Once again, comparing the Start-End Ranking Plot for 2017 with that from 2012 when the number of participants was similar and start-enclosures had just been introduced indicates a clear move away from high disorder towards greater order.

Did the reduced crowd density encourage more orderly behaviour?

Summary and Way Forward

I introduced the concept of ‘disorder’ or Race Entropy to characterize the (lack of) ease of flow within a race. I showed how the introduction of start-enclosures based on ‘expected finish time’ helps reduce this Race Entropy (disorder). So, besides features such as aid stations, route marshaling, medal quality, pricing of race entry tickets, and post-race refreshments Race Entropy serves as a superb single measure to capture the overall race experience for those who turned up.

I will write again soon and provide guidance to you the racer, race pacer or race organizer based on this dimension of analysis.

Until then, try to not bump into anyone 🙂

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Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.

Competing & Comparing – Targeting Happiness Maximization

Eyeing your competition, how can you make the comparisons happy?

Eyeing your competition, how can you make the comparisons happy?

Happiness warning: This conversation pertains to all aspects of your life, not just physical fitness.

It has been a while since I chatted with you about Why I don’t care about your Podium Finish (or Mine). Since then it has been one of my most widely read articles. Those who know me well, know that I am extremely competitive, but I would like to think they have always thought it to be an appropriately targeted style of competitive spirit. At the same time, one of the terms and conditions I set in place early when I mentor anyone is “you will not compare your performance (e.g. running times) or attributes (e.g. body fat %) with that of any other person”. So, if that’s the case, do I think it is good for you to compete? Yes. And, do I think it is good for you to compare? Yes. So then, is there a catch? What is the framework within which competing and comparing can be life-enhancing?

Roadmap

I will speak swiftly about competing, comparing, benchmarking, competition and control, and then make recommendations around compassion, detachment and improvement. In a few minutes, I hope you will have a happier and clearer path to follow.

About Competing

Researchers in the area of happiness and social psychology have demonstrated that in order to enjoy an activity and derive happiness from it, the level of difficulty has to be just slightly higher than what you are currently capable of. Have you noticed that when you take up something like badminton or squash, those who are a lot better than you do not really want to play against you if they can help it. Or have you noticed how you do not want to always train for a race with someone who is much slower than you?

About Comparing

Comparisons within a population

Researchers have also shown that comparing yourself with others does not lead to truly sustainable happiness. Comparisons with those much better than us can be demoralizing. Comparisons with those much worse than us can lead to arrogance. At the same time, comparisons are inherent to the survival of living things. Even single-cell organisms compare the immediate environment to what is ideal for their proliferation to decide what their next move should be.

Comparing and Competing

So, if you are to compete, and you are to compare, then how do you do this in a way that leads to greater happiness and fulfilment? You probably know the answer to this already having heard it often – and even in my previous article. Do not compare with and compete against others, compare with and compete against yourself. Now, let us examine this more closely and try to understand why it works.

GPF – Genetic Potential Fitness

Who is a hero by moving towards their GPF?

Who is a hero by moving towards their GPF?

In Why I don’t care about your Podium Finish I had described how the very slow lady who was getting faster was developing herself as a person, whereas the complacent lady with better genes for that domain who was winning races was, perhaps, not. It was in this earlier news article that I first publicly mentioned what I call GPF or Genetic Potential Fitness. Although, at first sight it appears that I am talking about physical fitness, in fact, I think of this as being applicable to any domain of your life that interests you. From running to sleep (yes, you can train yourself to sleep in the best way possible), from body strength to singing (do you know someone who has a lovely voice but never makes it to a performance stage because they are too lazy to practice?), from calisthenics to cooking (isn’t it amazing to come across a teenager who can knock your socks off with an amazing dessert?).

You and I both have immense potential in each of the areas of life that interests us but we rarely get close to that potential. We allow ourselves to wallow in the middle of our abilities, far from our genetic potential.

Benchmarking vs The Competition

Once we leave school and college education, unless we are professional athletes most of us have no formal competitive benchmark placed before us to beat. Sure, a sales professional has to beat his competitor’s sales in the next quarter, a housewife feels the pressure to cook her husband’s favourite dish better than his mother does, and a fund investment manager attempts to beat the industry benchmark agreed with her client. The rest of us tend to find some path through the various constraints we face while trying to produce better results, whether in the kitchen, office, boardroom or bedroom.

Cross-sectional vs Time-series

Time-Series vs Cross-sectional

When we compare with others we are typically doing a “cross-sectional comparison” – an observation of many people at a given point in time. Although that has value in some settings, and perhaps can even be one form of short-term motivation, I prefer to think of “time-series comparisons” where I am the only subject in the data set and observe progression through time. Why do I do this and what is the special strategic advantage in doing this?

Control

Transform yourself by working to be closer to your GPF

Transform yourself by working to be closer to your GPF

Whenever we announce the result of some study, typically of an activity and its effect, there is always the implied question “what control group did you use as a benchmark?”. Unless you can study yourself along with clones of yourself for a cross-sectional self-study, it is really not possible to fully and precisely understand the effect of an activity on only you as a specific individual – be it the effect of regular exercise on your health, giving up sweetened drinks, or the introduction of meditation into your life. However, you can do something almost equivalent to that in a manner that will lead to greater happiness.

Although you can’t do a cross-sectional comparative study of you with your clones, you can do a time-series study of yourself. The DNA is held fixed at least! Besides keeping track of your actions (the ‘process’), we can also keep track of your outcomes (the ‘goals’) over time.

Comparing Happily

The beauty of this approach of ‘self-comparison’ is that if you approach the dimension being pursued (e.g. your speed with Sudoku) with ‘self-compassion‘ (which, incidentally, is the other attribute that increases happiness) there is unlikely to be jealousy or even envy. After all, when was the last time you were jealous of your recent self? So, comparing with yourself will not produce negative happiness outcomes. (Of course, we might all look back much further with nostalgia or yearning at our more youthful days.)

Competing Happily

If you set your personal targets wisely to be just slightly better than what you think you are currently capable of, then the competition is also healthy! Often, we set unrealistic targets and then are not happy with the outcomes. Perhaps, one day soon I will speak about target-setting specifically.

Conditioning for Happiness

Whenever we have an outcome that is better or worse than what we hoped for, we can explain the difference between what we expected and what transpired with some obvious factors. And, often some of the difference remains unaccounted for given the information we possess. [I did something along those lines at a population level when I made this assertion.]

Now, think about the following – when you compare with others in daily life, you really have no clue about all the factors that lead to their performance. (You almost always don’t know what constraints or opportunities the other person had.) So, then, the comparison with them leads to very little value add to yourself. When you compare against your own (recent or distant) past, however, you have so much more information and there can be a lot more value captured (in the form of actual learning and progress, or even plain-and-simple ‘satisfaction’).

Performance Attribution

If you record information about yourself then understanding why your performance was better or worse than expected is easy to do in a dispassionate manner. The more information and the richer the information you record, the more you will be able to understand yourself, your processes and your performances. For example, “I swam slower today because of a slight cold and blocked nose”. The positive feedback loop also serves as a wonderful tool for self-motivation.

Inward Looking is Forward Looking

A key distinction between comparing and competing with others rather than with yourself is that of the target view being outward versus inward. The more you look inward, with or without explicit recording of data, the less you will find the need to be emotionally affected by the performance of others. Never mind what everyone else is up to, focus on your own growth towards being a more intelligent soul. The more you try to improve by controlling yourself, the less you will find the need to control other people or events [a surefire way of being unhappy in the short, medium and long run].

Making Outward Looking also Forward Looking

When you are observing others, make it about process observation along with performance observation. Observe the changes in process that lead to differences in performance for that person. That will allow you to learn without comparing yourself with that person – you are comparing that person with that same person for your own self-improvement! There is, however, no competition with that person!

Final Wisdom – Interested in Outcome, Unemotional about Result

When you work hard, you are interested in the result. However, it is important to develop a habit of being unemotional about the result that transpires- you are not your result. This form of ‘detached attachment’ is good yogic wisdom and can be made easier if you can attribute your performance to various documented factors, and attribute the (tiny) balance i.e. what you cannot explain to ‘luck’ or ‘chance’. Perhaps data can help you transcend!

I wish you happy comparing and happy competing for your personal growth and fulfillment!

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Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.

The 1-arm Pushup

Watch the video!

A few months ago, I spoke about Pushups for the Ladies and was serious when I said that it wasn’t only for the ladies. Now, I bring you 1-arm pushups, something that is definitely for the men! And again, this time, if you are a lady, please don’t go away – there’s useful learning in what I have to say that will translate into other activities of daily life that you might do. And, if you were disciplined in following the process I outlined and can do good pushups on the floor, you might enjoy the challenge of doing at least one good quality 1-arm pushup after a few weeks.

Chat flow – I will first tell you what the 1-arm pushup is, the benefits of doing it, how to get around to doing (first) a single repetition of the 1-arm pushup and (then) many repetitions successfully, as well as the potential risks to watch out for. As usual, I will keep unnecessary biology and physics out of this chat and focus on getting practical results safely.

 

What is a 1-arm pushup?
A 1-arm pushup is a pushup with just one arm at a time – the other arm provides no assistance!

 

Why is it good to be able to do a 1-arm pushup?

Strength
As with the pushup, the primary muscles worked are the chest muscles and the triceps. The reason that most of us do not want to try a 1-arm pushup is very simple – it feels very difficult. Indeed, it is difficult, because we typically do not need or require that level of strength for 99% of our daily activities. So, the muscle fibres that would typically be called into action to do that work are lying asleep most of our lives. Whether or not you do strength training at the gym, it is likely that you will enjoy the process and the final outcome of attempting the 1-arm pushup. And, of course, the relevant muscles will become stronger and larger.

Stability
Because of having no support from the ‘missing arm’, your entire body has to work to hold your posture. You will feel the maximum effort in those muscles that provide rotational stabilizing torque around your hips and torso.

Hero with Pushups – Zero with 1-arm Pushups
Here you can watch me doing 66 good quality standard pushups in a split set. But even if you can drop down and give me 50 good quality standard pushups with both arms, it is highly likely that you will not be able to do a single good quality 1-arm pushup. (Test my theory by trying one right now, and respond to this poll. Keep reading, of course…)


And if you can do only 30 (or 40 or 50) regular pushups, my bet is that in progressing to 1-arm pushups you will soon be able to do more than 50 of the regular kind!

Pointless Planks
You’ve probably heard me say that I don’t think much of doing standard or modified planks as part of a regular workout for the reasonably fit. As an isometric and static exercise, its functional usefulness is low. In Pushups for the Ladies I set planks as a prerequisite if you’ve been a couch potato or were doing what I called ‘sissy knee pushups’. The return on time invested in exercise is low with a plank – graduate to pushups if you haven’t already done so and make sure of success with regular pushups by reading my guidance on it.

For me, the beauty of the pushup is that it uses so much of your entire body while requiring no equipment. The 1-arm pushup just takes that beauty 5 notches higher!

 

What does it take to do a 1-arm pushup?

Complete FULL range of motion for the 1-arm Pushup

Complete FULL range of motion for the 1-arm Pushup

Pre-Requisites
I would say that you should be able to do at least 30 good quality pushups on the ground before you progress to attempting the 1-arm pushup. Remember, the 1-arm pushup will make you stronger for the regular pushup so you could merge the progression of both. So, in sessions when you are not doing the 1-arm pushup, you might find that you are now able to do more regular pushups than you could.

Range of Motion
As with the standard pushup, it is important that you go all the way down, to ensure that your nose touches the ground.

Form & Technique
Excellent form and technique are important with any movement or static posture. The tendency to make errors when being pushed to the limits is higher so be extra careful with spine safety when doing the 1-arm pushup! I have highlighted these earlier.

Progression
Similar to my advice for the regular pushups, I can guarantee you success with the 1-arm pushup if you start with the ‘imaginary ground’ at a considerable height and then progressively lower it over many sessions.

Careful progress in load intensity over time

Careful progress in load intensity over many weeks

Remember, you should keep at least 48 hours between sessions and, whenever needed, an even longer gap. In the early days, most of the changes in your body are neuro-muscular as you ‘learn the movement pattern’. The smooth firing of neurons and muscle fibre units will take a few sessions to consolidate as the requirements are different from those of a standard pushup. Remember, there’s no rush – take it easy with progression, focus on the process not the outcome, and you will succeed. And remember, just as you expect to go lower as the weeks go by, within any given session, it’s OK to go higher for a second or third or fourth set.

Feet positions and Centre of Gravity
When doing a standard (symmetrical) pushup your COG (centre of gravity) was in the midline of your body. The base of support there was (roughly) the rectangle formed by your hands and feet. Now, with one arm withdrawn and not providing support, the symmetry has been broken and your COG is now shifted away. Fortunately, the shift of your COG is likely to be towards the opposite arm and leg. The vertical line of gravity is now not necessarily going to pass through the triangular base of support. There will be natural tendency to widen your feet position and that is fine – it’s still a 1-arm pushup!

Feet Positions, Base of Support and Centre/Line of Gravity

Feet Positions, Base of Support and Centre/Line of Gravity

Feet positions and Slipping
You will notice that if the soles of your shoes are even slightly slippery your feet will tend to skid when doing the 1-arm pushup. This can be unnerving but you can also use it to your advantage to find out the most stable body position thanks to that slack variable.

The Working Arm
The further your working hand is away from your head the greater will be the effort by your chest muscles. The closer it is to your head, elbow closer to the side of your body, the greater will be the effort required by your triceps. This was the case with the regular pushup too. Note that a narrow hand (relative to head) position and a narrow feet position will mean a smaller triangular base of support within which your line of gravity must be.

The Other Arm
I typically keep the free arm behind my back, but you have a choice of keeping it in the air in ‘alert position’ if you are nervous. The lowest ‘load contribution’ of that arm is when your hand is around your belly button (or lower back) and will be greatest when the arm is stretched out ahead of your head. You must, of course, develop the ability to do a 1-arm pushup with each of your arms, equally, not only your stronger arm. Whatever you do with the right arm, you must do with the left!

 

Risks of a 1-arm pushup

Joint Risk – Shoulder, Elbow, Wrist
Because the resistance you are pushing is both very high and very concentrated in terms of location you need to keep a careful watch out for your shoulder – a ball-and-socket joint that is highly susceptible to sports injuries. However, that should not stop you from venturing into 1-arm pushups as careful progression towards the ability to do a 1-arm pushup will mean increased strength and stability for that otherwise vulnerable joint. So, the trick is to shock your body safely! The wrist and elbow joints will have to deal with similar shocks so be sensible with progression – be conservative – in this case, it is better to take many weeks to reach your goal than not at all.

Face Smash Risk
The thought of sudden failure with a 1-arm pushup can seem scary because of your fear of smashing your face in the ground. However, what is more likely is that you will roll into the ‘missing arm’ and fall on its upper arm and shoulder – your face is likely to remain beautiful and unhurt! Fear not!

Anatomical Deformities
The ape-like imbalanced appearance of many gym rats can be easily avoided by maintaining symmetry along all dimensions (upper/lower body, left/right limbs, front/back). To balance the 1-arm pushup with its mirror movement, you could do the 1-arm row, either seated or standing (straight on a pulley system, or bent over with a dumbbell when hinging at your hip).

Seated Row to mirror the 1-arm Pushup

Seated Row to mirror the 1-arm Pushup

Standing Row to mirror the 1-arm Pushup

Standing Row to mirror the 1-arm Pushup

How long will it take to do a 1-arm pushup?

Progression is always a function of many things. But, my rough guess is that in as little as 12 sessions, spread over say 8 weeks, you can be doing at least one good form 1-arm pushup with very low injury risk. If you are one-third my age and naturally strong, you could probably achieve the goal in a couple of weeks. However, overriding your eagerness and ambition should be feelings of self-protection, so be conservative in your progression from zero to hero!

1-arm Pushup, then what?

Once you can do a 1-arm pushup with each arm, the obvious natural progression is to do more of them. The functional benefit of doing too many is limited especially compared to the risk to the shoulder joint. Unless you sense that you are genetically gifted I would say that doing up to 10 repetitions on each side is sufficient for developing excellent strength in a safe manner. Once you can do 10 with each arm, there is no shame in pulling back and just sticking to doing 5 with each arm perhaps once a week. For the next 40 years 😉 …heh heh!

Path ahead

I guarantee that if you internalize what I have said, and go through the process until you can do even a single 1-arm pushup, it will definitely change your perspective on life positively, even if just slightly. Go on, do it!

Just push it!

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Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.

Information and Your Happiness

Information and Happiness

Information and Happiness

Today I am going to chat with you about the information you deal with, its impact on your happiness, and ways to make it work for you to have a more fulfilling life.

Introducing Information

A few weeks ago, as part of the recently added theme on better living, I introduced you to my infographic that I call “A Better Life” to be helpful in my guidance for you. It is not because I have it in my tagline (the refusal to think is evil) that I think that your thoughts are critical to your happiness. You want to be happier, you want to feel that life is fulfilling. Hey, I want that too! You have thoughts, lots of thoughts, and all the time. Whatever you think, they lead to what you feel, and then to the action you take, and the result that follows. The thoughts are based on the information set you hold at any point in time. (The term ‘information set’ is just a fancy term for everything you know. In other words, it is a sum total of all the things you experienced since birth minus all the things that you have forgotten.)

So, why should we pay attention to the formation of this information set and what can we do about constructing and using it in a way that makes us happier?

Impact – Short Term – Incremental Information

If through some mechanism we created a replica of you right now, and called that twin ‘YourTwin’ you would both be in precisely the same emotional state. If YourTwin was then whispered some good news, and you were whispered some bad news, your emotional states would typically diverge. That additional news imparted was added to the information set that each of you held. As time passes you and I receive different bits of information and so our information sets are very different.

Impact of Incremental Information

Impact of Incremental Information

In the case of the sudden magical existence of YourTwin, before the additional news was imparted, with the same information, the thoughts, feelings and actions would have been identical. It is the incremental information that led to a divergence of moods.

Impact – Long Term – Integral of Information

screenshot255You are the sum total of your experiences so far. Because the long term is made up of the many, many short-terms it is important to understand the impact of each short-term and also the interaction between the many short-terms that make up the long-term.

Revelation of Information, Resolution of Uncertainty

Uncertainty, Reality - Information includes unrealized possibilities

Information includes unrealized possibilities

As time passes uncertainty is resolved. What was once a set of possibilities in our information set becomes a single reality in the information set. It is also worthwhile noting that the many unrealized possibilities are not to be discarded in favour of the single possibility that was eventually realized.

 

Let us now zoom into the information component of the infographic, A Better Life

Information in A Better Life

Information in A Better Life

Information Sources – Internal and External

External Information lies outside your mind. The non-human sources are many (e.g. internet, TV, printed material). The human sources are all the people you interact with directly. Internal Information is that which resides in your mind already, memories since birth. Most of the internal information will have originated from external sources. It is this information that we must take great care of and is essentially what drives your happiness. Your internal information is also your knowledge.

The Value of Information – My Green Underwear and Your Consumption

Many of us confuse ‘information’ with ‘useful information’. Even academics will often publish research that is ‘new’ and even incremental to existing information. [Click here to see some of mine 🙂 ]  However, you need to understand that, for you, information is useful and worth sourcing, analyzing and storing only if it will affect your current or future consumption. The knowledge that I am wearing green underwear does not affect your future happiness – it is new information but it is of zero value [or even negative value 😉 ]. Perhaps this crude analogy will help you remember this point whenever you think of information sources, so-called-information or news items, and storing that information. Ideally, information you seek ought to be both incremental and useful.

Action – External Information Sources

Given that information is the input to our thoughts, filtering it appropriately is important. Doing it consciously and with intelligent focus is very important. When I block out certain information sources, I call it ‘negative filtering’. Blocking out is extreme filtering – preventing information sources from reaching you in the first place! With external non-human information sources, this could include switching out of rubbish TV channels, muting the TV during adverts, watching news channels that do not constantly pipe through bad news. Filtering out external human information sources would include avoiding people who are ‘a waste of time’ or affect your state of mind negatively. And then we have the converse, ‘positive filtering’, to actively receive targeted e-mails on subject areas or sub-topics of interest, or meeting friends and experts who enhance our state of mind.

Block out Rubbish, Store the Useful Stuff Carefully, and Try to Not Forget it!

Block out Rubbish, Store the Useful Stuff Carefully, and Try to Not Forget it!

Action – Noise, not News

Someone who reads nothing is likely to not benefit much from the information available out there. Someone who reads a lot without being discerning is likely to (a) not retain much (b) spend less time on reflecting or have less time for acting in ways that make that information useful (c) not become particularly knowledgeable at things that are useful. Stop reading that newspaper every day. It is more likely to be making you more stressed and less happy. Even if you work in the financial markets, going to news actively at more spaced out intervals is likely to help you make better decisions. Do not waste your pre-frontal-cortex’s limited bandwidth on noise. Become a connoisseur of new useful information, not a mindless consumer of noise.

Pre-Processing Before Storage

Processing the information that you receive is also important so that you can decide whether you need to take specific action based on it or simply store away that information. Understanding how we commit to memory is also important then. Techniques for reinforcing useful memories for the short term (e.g. the name of the waiter who just served you – for a better meal experience) or the long term (e.g. the process for emergency CPR – to save a life!) will also be good for you to develop.

Internal Information

Information once stored comes in handy later for solving problems (e.g. getting to your favourite restaurant) and at times it can be debilitating (e.g. fear of approaching your boss to ask for a pay rise because of experiences in your childhood or recent past). Handling that internal information consciously is also important for thriving. Being conscious of your power to try to retrieve only useful information will make you feel more in control of your own life. Your internal information is your knowledge – and knowledge is power! Focus on quality not just quantity. But, with regards to quantity, remember that knowledge builds on knowledge – you can’t read unless you know the alphabet! You won’t eat healthily if you don’t even know something as simple as what the nutrient groups are!

Results as Information

With the information that we have we think through a decision process and then perform certain actions. Those actions lead to certain results and those results become new information that we have to then manage. We generally tag or label these results e.g. ‘disaster’, ‘bad’, ‘good’, ‘awesome’ when we store them away but that tagging also needs wisdom. I spoke to you many months ago about how such labels can limit you. Results are just an outcome and, therefore, beyond the necessary analysis, resultant conclusions and sensible storage, it makes more sense to focus in a disciplined manner on improving the design and execution of the daily processes (that drive the results).

Information and Cognitive Biases

Humans are subject to a whole host of cognitive biases that make us function in less than optimal ways. Knowing what these biases are, and what their impact might be, will help reduce the cost of errors you make using the information you handle. Ignore this aspect at your peril!

Junkie? No! Snob? Yes!

If you are anywhere close to my age or older you grew up in times when information and knowledge were not easy to come by. There was no world-wide-web and definitely no smart search engines. You had to typically get hold of books, journals or wait for a specific documentary to be aired on TV. Today, there is concern about information overload. There are some people who still take pride in being news junkies. I prefer to follow the approach of being an information snob. Don’t take false pride in hearing about a lot, or even knowing a lot. Take pride in knowing enough of what is important to lead a happier life. It is not a problem of information overload – it is a problem of inappropriate filtering! I consciously seek additional knowledge every day but I try to do that under the umbrella of consciously deciding what information to add to my information set. Information that will not make me happier now or in the future, I consciously avoid. Information that will help me consume more units of happiness now or in the future is what I am interested in. Paying attention to that detail is important.

Be a snob, don’t consume junk!

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Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.

You Might Run Slower Sooner Than You Think

Land, Air or Sea - Natural Limits Exist

Land, Air or Sea – Natural Limits Exist

Do you sometimes wonder for how long you will keep improving your race times? Do you see some friends (appear to) continue to improve year after year, and yet others (seem to) not improve much at all, and some even (seem to) be get slightly worse every year? What could your own benchmark be for athletic performance as the years roll past? Would be good to have a handle on that, right? (Did you wonder why I have those few words in parentheses and emphasized in italics? It is because what ‘appears to’ be, or ‘seems to’ be, might not always be!)

Now, what if you could follow almost 200 recreational distance runners for 7 years over the same race that they ran year-after-year? That might tell you a lot about where your own running might take you, right? Well, here’s some evidence based guidance, based on data never seen before, that I have put together for you.

After listening to what I have to say here, mostly facts, and some conjecture, you will be able to plan your own distance running or other athletic targets for the years to come.

Quick Background

From early childhood to post-puberty, children keep improving for years in various measures of fitness. There is a difference between boys and girls and, depending on what feature of athletic performance one looks at, for a given youth the path will follow periods of rapid improvement, stagnation, and then further improvement followed by tapering off in improvements. What can we say for adult recreational athletes?

Some studies suggest that it takes about 4 years of training for an adult to reach their peak potential. Of course, it is quite likely that the results from controlled studies on adult sporting professionals might not apply to you. That is especially the case if you are an urban recreational athlete. So, let us listen to the story from a unique data set that I have prepared for us.

Unique Data

I look at the case of my ‘home race’, the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon, and examine the performance of all the runners who raced the exact same half marathon or full marathon every single year for 7 years in a row (2010 to 2016). This is a small subset of the urban running population. But it is a very valuable subset as it allows us to follow the exact same population of runners over multiple years. Recreational runners in Mumbai face all the constraints and challenges of life in a city with a very high population density, stupidly high real estate costs, terrible public infrastructure and not the most pleasant weather in the world. Having said that, I believe the broad pattern of results will apply to any pairwise population cohort and race combination.

Earlier Work on this Race Event

In a much earlier conversation I presented what happened between 2010 and 2014 to the overall numbers of all participants in the races and average race times over those 5 years. Earlier this year I presented here how that overall quality (race times) and quantity (number of participants) had changed in the period 2010 to 2016. Neither of those investigations had controlled for individual runners being identified and tracked separately across races. Then, when I addressed the question Are Recreational Marathoners in India Getting Faster? I tackled the issue of identifying runners across consecutive races and examining their performance. I identified and tracked 50,719 consecutive period race pairs. However, this repeated pairing was done only across consecutive races – not across the entire span of multiple years. Now, for the first time, here, I identify and examine the same runner across a long span of 7 years and always running the same race – either the half marathon 7 years in a row, or the full marathon 7 years in a row.

Noise

There will be a few cases within the data where the race times are not representative of the ‘true state of athletic performance’. Examples include: transfer of racing bibs to friends who are a lot slower/faster, pacing a slower set of runners, sudden bout of food poisoning during the race. Cramping or running injuries mid-race are not equivalent examples because they do indicate the state of the runner – unprepared for the race!

What happened to Race Times over 7 Years?

There were only 158 participants who ran the half marathon in all 7 years. The equivalent number for the full marathon is just 35, so I exclude them for now but will refer to them shortly.

Same Race, Same Runners, Net-Finish-Times

As the bar graph shows, in terms of the average finish time of the group, the absolute athletic performance does not keep improving each year endlessly. In fact, besides being numerically similar, the average race time sometimes does not prove to be statistically different from one year to the next (i.e. given the variation in individual timings from one race to the next, the average of the race times of all runners in each year does not change enough for that change to be distinguished to be different from zero). So then what can we say about the variation from one year to the next?

Factors Affecting Performance

Factors Affecting Aggregate Race Performance

Factors Affecting Aggregate Race Performance

Of the broad factors affecting performance, the (i) Temperature on race morning and (ii) Humidity on race morning which can, confusingly, often vary in opposite directions to each other can be cleverly combined into the single Heat Index for those race mornings for neater analysis. The process followed by (iii) Ageing is deterministic (a year every year!) even if its effect is not constant, and so can be ignored to a very good first approximation between consecutive years (even if not across a 7-year jump). The (iv) Elevation profile was approximately the same for the years 2010 to 2015 (inclusive) and we can note the effect of the noticeably changed route in 2016. The process followed by (v) Training is the big unknown, and is individual runner specific, and is into which we can subsume all variation unexplained by the other factors when comparing successive years for any individual runner. This includes physical conditioning over a year, psychological training for athletic performance, and any other on-race-day individual behaviour.

Note that although we cannot distinguish between those who commenced running in 2010 and those who might have been active distance runners for 30 years, by aggregating numbers, we can smoothen out individual idiosyncracies and examine the overall impact of Training and the other factors on the entire cohort over that period.

Reasonable Factor Variability Reduction

Reasonable Factor Variability Reduction

Plotting the Heat Index for each of the race mornings along with the average finish times we can see that, from 2011 to 2016 the Heat Index stays within a narrow band, but the performance does not really improve much with time. The effect of training of these runners over a year is not strong enough to drive race performance to faster finish times.

Weather within a Narrow Band - Performance Stagnates

Weather within a Narrow Band – Performance Stagnates

Worsening Performance in 2016 – Route Change, Ageing or Training?

When the changed route for the Half Marathon was announced for 2016 I spoke to you about the challenges. My estimate then was that it would add between 1%-3% to your race time. Given that the Heat Index was almost identical on the race mornings of 2015 and 2016, one might conclude that (all other things remaining equal) the (2.56%) slower time in 2016 vindicated my forecast estimate of 1%-3%. Of course, the runners were a year older. But, let’s assume that the extra year of ageing didn’t really affect performance. Then, since the Full Marathon had the same route for both 2015 and 2016, perhaps we can say that those who had been running it for 7 years in a row displayed worse performance! The effect of a year of ageing had now overpowered an extra year of training! In that case we cannot separate out the effects of the route change for the Half Marathon and the worsening because of ageing versus training.

Same Weather - Same/Changed Route - Worse Performance!

Same Weather – Same/Changed Route – Worse Performance!

Why we should Love this Special Population?

It is instructive to note that this population of runners who had run the same 7 races for 7 years in a row is a unique subset of the 45,000 humans who ran in either the half or the full marathon in those 7 years. They are not representative of the typical recreational runner (who clearly did not run the same race for 7 years). However, they are an especially useful segment of the running population because they tell us what we can reasonably expect of ourselves when we set out to make running (or any other physical activity) a part of our lives for the long run. You can also see that their athletic ability spans a wide range and you will be able to identify your own ability within this range.

2016 SCMM Half Marathon Finish Times for the Cohort of 158 runners

2016 SCMM Half Marathon Finish Times for the Cohort of 158 runners

What does this Story Really Mean for You?

I have told you why you need not run and even why I don’t care about your podium finish (or mine). I love to include running as one very very tiny part of the many activities I engage in for a happier life. I ran my first half marathon (accidentally) in that same Half Marathon in 2010 but am not part of this data set. However, the numbers speak to me very clearly and form evidence based guidance on what could be appropriate benchmarks for my own running as the years roll by. Even as I write this closing paragraph, I noticed that my regular weekend long-run buddy features in the data. He has a Half Marathon PB of 1-hour-12-minutes (many years ago) and is the fastest runner in this cohort of runners. I like the guidance that these numbers give me. How will you benefit from their story?

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Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.