13 days ago, at 3.00am AEST on Monday November 5th, my client Angus Wilson commenced his journey through the five boroughs of New York City in his 10th career marathon. A marathon is a significant challenge to oneself physically, mentally and spiritually, and many say the ultimate test of human physiology. For Angus, completing this marathon was an incredible reward for his life transforming journey over the last 12 weeks.
It all started on July 31st 2018, when Angus requested we have a meeting.
After making my way in to Barangaroo, the meeting started with a brief introduction and some very brief questions surrounding what I did after leaving Sydney University Football Club, and some other idle chat around what it was like to work with some of my other clients such as Brad Haddin, Nathan Lyon, Sean Abbott and a few other of my other emerging athletes.
Whilst I had heard an enormous amount about Angus through his closest mate of over 25 years, Chris Malone, I was uncertain of the exact direction the meeting would undertake. Angus a great Rugby Union man, who had given so much to NSW Waratahs, NSW Country Rugby Union (in particular the Central West Country Rugby Union), Sydney University Football Club, Mudgee Wombats and his beloved Galloping Galloways. It became clear to me he had a genuine love of the game, I could relate to his passion and hope around the future direction of the game. I started to sense, whatever he tended to do he did with a purpose and commitment often unrivalled.
But, like many high achieving executives, Angus had previously been extremely fit, but had fallen into the trap of neglecting his health and well-being as he entered his early 40s. Work, family and life stressors can get the better of even the best. After being fit during his late 20s and early 30s, Angus’ physical exercise had diminished significantly, particularly over the last 3 years.
The purpose of the meeting eventually came – Angus asked could I get him ready to compete in the New York Marathon.
My response was of course delivered with great enthusiasm and assurance:“Yeah, we can do that”. Then he went on to ask how much weight I could get him to lose over the next 12 weeks. I paused briefly, thinking about what the optimal body weight would be given the challenges of time and his previous level of physical activity over the last few years and months. I said calmly “35kg?”
Angus would later attest that this was the turning point in changing his life. How could a person who was deemed to be so abrasive, aggressive and full of energy in his playing careers, be so calm and assured of the journey ahead.
The chat continued for 45 mins around some other aspects of life, waving in and out of his eagerness to understand the science and methodologies of what I did. I previously held a sense of nervousness around what people thought of me and or what he may have perceived. Today, my life doesn’t possess that hesitation nor fear. I sense my purpose is very clear these days. People either believe in what I do, or they don’t. Ultimately though, the results will be binary, and I will be judged off that.
Angus said he would have one more day of having a few alcoholic beverages at the great annual event, the KPMG Sydney University Football Club Finals luncheon, and then after that, he had a work trip to Europe for two weeks. Apart from that he was fully committed to changing his behaviours and lifestyle.
My last comment to Angus, was that if he did everything to the best of his ability and was able to commit, the results would be extraordinary.
At the start of August the journey began, with Angus weighing in at 128.3kg.
As I do with all my clients I sought some support from Ryan Pinto at High Performance Nutrition Australia. The best performance nutritionist I have ever worked with in 20 years of sport.
Then, the rest of the program would be his training, tailored to optimise his performance. The training program consisted of multiple sessions each week targeting the key performance pillars in endurance sports: improving aerobic capacity, lactate threshold and movement efficiency.
The aerobic capacity sessions were all based off heart rate response and specifically targeted to allow Angus to maximise his energy system development and optimise performance. These sessions either optimised recovery (low heart required to improve recovery, peripheral adaptations) or increased energy expenditure. At 128.7kg, we had plenty of excess energy to burn. The ability to construct a program that maximises all capacities along the energy system continuum is the key to endurance sports performances. The merging and cross-pollination of training capacities that often occurs in everyday training, is a great limitation to long term health and performance. For example, training too hard on recovery days or not targeting the appropriate heart rate response on training days. For Angus, this was his greatest strength, his impeccable discipline and capacity to repeatedly hit the appropriate numbers, time and time again.
The lactate threshold sessions centred primarily around cross training modalities, through High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) classes such as F45, primal movement-based sessions or pulling heavy sleds. These were the most challenging sessions from a muscle fatigue perspective initially, as the body and musculoskeletal system was not conditioned to moving in such intense and dynamic ways. Over time, as the running volumes increased and physical capacities improved, these became a lot easier, and as the weight shifted, so did the ability to tolerate high intensities of training and the quicker Angus recovered.
The movement efficiency sessions focused on improving Angus’ lumbar pelvic stability, his hip conditioning through structural strengthening and rehabilitating his previous meniscal tear repair in his knee. Over time, he would attest that although he initially thought that these sessions were a waste of time, they were the saving grace and the most notable influence on developing his running mechanics. The sessions shifted his running skills from resembling the ‘Cliffy Young Shuffle’ to producing a more efficient running gait, with better horizontal projection. Movement efficiency is the ultimate balance between lean muscle index (bodyweight/body composition), functional strength and the body’s ability to co-ordinate movement in the most efficient manner. Angus also walked sleds for movement efficiency development for hours and hours to develop the tolerance and resilience required to run for just under 4 hours in the marathon. They also helped in strengthening his hip stabilising muscles, gluteus medius, gluteus, gluteus maximus and adductor.
A great limitation I regularly see in athletes that are attempting to or have lost a lot of weight, is that they are unable to transfer these gains to athletic movements. This means that they cannot hold optimal positions, develop the appropriate projection when moving or apply force into the ground. Movement efficiency sessions are what everyday athletes require most, but rarely do. Chasing the holy grail of aerobic capacity doesn’t always equate to better performance.
Whilst this is a very abbreviated version of what the training program looked like, the program evolved over time to facilitate and optimise Angus’s performance. Consistent consultation with Ryan Pinto, heart rate response measurements in training, body weight and food diary assessment, constant wellbeing checks, and soreness fatigue markers all contributed to the end result.
Fast forward 12 weeks, Wednesday 31st of October, and Angus completed his final session.
The final weigh in pre-New York Marathon read 93.7kg. Exactly 35kg.
Whilst I could sit here and continue to discuss the performance effects Angus gained in his marathon preparation, what fulfils me more is that he has saved his own life. The enormous amounts of health-related risk factors that have been reduced from his 12-week program are beyond measure.
The results are a testament to the person that he is. His greatness in life is defined by his inner drive, discipline and attention to detail. The psychological and physical benefits of this journey are profound for Angus, and a great reward for all of those that have supported him throughout his journey.
Angus completed the marathon in a little over 4:10:39. Whilst not his fasted marathon, nor was it his slowest, his greatest achievement remains that in 12 weeks he changed his life and turned his health around.
Today as I write this, was the first time I saw him. Thursday the 15th of November. The sense of pride I have in his achievement and journey is beyond measure. I shared some words that will remain between he and I – a private acknowledgement of my gratitude for letting me share his journey with him.
Our relationship has changed now, not client and coach, but more a bond solidified by an extraordinary journey.
Our conversations now centre around the meaning and purpose of life, where Human Performance as a business should go and most importantly preparing for the Comrades marathon in South Africa and the Marathon des Sables (MdS) in 2020 – if you don’t know what this is, this is worth a watch (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iHNXh-ybQbo)
I finish this post with an incredible sense of pride. I have achieved a significant amount of success in my own sporting career in various teams, and I have achieved a lot with athletes within Human Performance, including some of Australian sports very best athletes such as Brad Haddin, Nathan Lyon, Jarryd Hughes, Lavinia Chrystal and Emily Chancellor. However, Angus will go down with them all in my opinion. His courage, discipline, focus and capacity to challenge the limits of his own physiology and psychology is second to none. He taught me what it means to believe in something, commit to it and execute it.
In 12 weeks he changed his life and mine. And although we may be polar opposites in many ways (he breeds Galloways, I like Shorthorns), he taught me that the human spirit has the capacity to transcend limits, when exposed to the appropriate environment.
Although this story has ended, it is only the beginning. I am so excited to have already started writing the next chapter!