The recent amazing successes of tennis maestro Roger Federer have had the sporting world excitedly looking at the benefits of a prolonged break from intense competition. His success has coined the expression “career resurgence”. After losing to Milos Raonic in the 2016 Wimbledon semi-finals and a 5 year hiatus since his last win in a major tournament, Federer announced he was taking a 6 month break to regather and to help a niggling knee problem recover. His return to tennis 6 months later has been nothing short of breath-taking as he has won both the 2017 Australian Open and Wimbledon titles. As I write this he is looking sharp in the early rounds of the US Open.
Federer’s successes have inspired his rival and friend Novak Djokovic to also announce his intention to take a break for a while after a run of poor form and a struggle with an injury. It seems that the new in-words could well become “prolonged rest and career resurgence”. There are a few examples of similar prolonged rest successes from the world of long distance running. The great Portuguese distance runner Carlos Lopes staged remarkable career resurgence in the early 1980s after a lengthy absence from the sport. Lopes won the world Cross country championships in 1976 and in the same year finished second in the Olympic 10000 metres. His career was then blighted by a series of injuries and it was not until the early 1980s that he was able to return to winning form. Amazingly Lopes’ greatest achievements still lay ahead of him. In 1984 He won his second World Cross country title, ran the second fastest 10000 metres ever, and then followed it up with his greatest triumph; the Olympic marathon gold medal at the Los Angeles Olympics. At 37 he was the oldest winner of the marathon. For good measure the following year he won his third World Cross country title and broke the world record for the marathon.
Lopes break was enforced, but this was not the case with South Africa’s 1995 Comrades marathon champion, Shaun Meiklejohn. Shaun ran 20 Comrades marathons in a row and all in very fast times. In addition to his 1995 win he also earned 10 top ten gold medals. He then retired after the 2002 Comrades marathon. For 7 years he didn’t run a step and put on a great deal of weight and became a classic couch potato. But then driven by his poor physical condition and a longing to run again, Shaun came out of retirement. He started training hard again. His results were extraordinary. He convincingly won his age group category (Over 50) in nearly every race he ran and simply annihilated all the rest of us greying, balding plodders. It seems his long lay-off gave him the edge against the rest of us in both training and racing.
We have all understood that rest is as important as training in any distance runners training programme but for as long as I can remember we have understood “rest” to be an easy day, or one or two days break from training. We could even tolerate the idea of a very lazy month after a major effort. But now it seems that retirement is the new elixir of success. After a few years of intense training and racing it now seems the best solution to a long career is to hide the running shoes away for many months, or even a couple of years and only dig them out from the back of the cupboard when they are covered in dust and several generations of spiders have bred in them.
As a great fan of “rest” I can now understand the benefits of this plan. The body has a chance to recover on a massive scale and the mind can recuperate and recapture the joy of the sport.
A major problem for me would be my love for a simple run. I cannot imagine not running a step for a month yet alone 6 months or a few years. I cannot imagine not communing with nature, not laughing with my friends, not feeling my lungs burn on a steep hill or watching the sun rise.
That’s probably the reason I will never win another major race no matter what the age category!
Roger Federer image via Queen of Tickets
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