by Grant McLean

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In August, Peter Snell was in New Zealand to receive a well deserved Knighthood. On a visit to SPARC I asked Peter (between discussing exercise science and asking for an autograph) if he would talk to On the Run – to my delight he said yes. Sir Peter talks about the place of the harrier club in his own running, his move on to new challenges and talks about his pursuit of healthy ageing for us all. Viewed through the perspective of a scientist he reminds us why we should keep moving – no matter what age.

Harriers’ contribution to an Olympic track champion

For Peter Snell running out of a harrier club was a foundation stone to his running success. Snell explains, “The Owairaka Harrier club was very important to my success as a runner. Arthur Lydiard encouraged me to join and participate  in the Saturday pack runs throughout the winter season. Typically I would do a 10-12 mile training run in the morning and participate in the pack run in the afternoon. The club provided social opportunities, new training partners, training nights and relay team events locally (Round the Harbour) and afar (Wellington-Masterton Relay). Our top runners, including Murray Halberg, Jeff Julian and Ray Puckett showed up regularly.

After a year I became the club treasurer. In the early days of my running (age 19-23), my transport was by either bus or bicycle, which meant that I was dependent on club members with a car to get to races,” Snell recalls. The abiding memory of his time at Owairaka is something that holds true in a club like Scottish.

“The memory that stands out most was the camaraderie and team spirit that was distinctly different from the track section of the club.”

Top and up-and-coming runners of today may want to reflect on the centrality of the club as a key component to Snell’s running. Snell did a training session Saturday morning, yet still attended the club run in the afternoon. Snell recalls that he regularly attended club days and races because “the club events were [a key] part of my winter training”.

Even as Snell began tasting success on the track he continued to run for his club in cross country and road races and national championships. “My goal during the winter was to become successful at cross-country and road racing. To this end I made the Auckland team at age 19 and performed poorly (55th place) at the National Championships in Invercargill. Next year (1959) I placed 4th in the Nationals at Te Rapa (Hamilton) and won the event in 1962 at Taradale (Hastings). Snell recalls, “After doing well in cross-country in the winter of 1959, I won two individual road races”. Of course you can overdo it as Snell found out that year; “I was obviously overdoing the racing and sustained a stress fracture of the tibia during a relay race and was off running for 2 months.”

In a mainly individually-focused sport Snell also enjoyed what is for many of us the high point of harrier running – road relays. “Relay running is the ultimate team event and I ran these at every opportunity. Winning the Wellington-Masterton Relay was memorable in 1962 where the Owairaka team set a new record,” notes Snell. It is also perhaps reassuring to hear that a runner of Snell’s calibre has had road relay bad days.” My nightmare experience occurred while running the 7th and anchor leg in the Round- the-Harbour Relay in Auckland. I experienced excruciating pain in my right shin after 2 miles of the 5 mile leg, and had to withdraw to taunts of “gutless” from a rival club member. An x-ray at the emergency room confirmed that I had sustained a stress-fracture of the tibia.

New challenges

After producing the multiple Olympic glories that are now weaved within the fabric of New Zealand’s national identity Peter Snell decided it was time to pursue a new, although related, career. This career involved uncovering the hard science behind Arthur Lydiard’s practical experimentation and legendary success. This change also engendered a change in athletic focus.

“I arrived in Dallas at the age of 42 and soon joined the Dallas Cross-Country club, which held monthly road races (no cross-country events).

After a couple of years I felt that the outcome of these Masters races was too predictable, both for me and my opposition and I lost interest. I participated in triathlon and biathlons, which were becoming popular and which seemed less predictable than 5 and 10 mile running races.

“After another couple of years, I stumbled on the sport of orienteering and have competed regularly including national and international Masters events for the last 25 years. I find that it is very like cross-country, with events held over varied terrain and the navigation component provides an extra dimension that for me makes the sport mentally as well as physically challenging. This month I will defend my Men’s 70 and over title at Greenbush, Wisconsin.”

Scientific advocate for physical activity and older age

While Peter Snell has redefined himself as a scientist he has remained connected to his athletic legacy by studying the very physical performance that produced that legacy. He has also expanded his interest to promoting the principles of prevention and the myriad benefits of remaining physically active into older age. Snell certainly embodies the benefits of remaining active and has scientifically measured his own physical performance through the years. In a way this echoes what Arthur had done all those years before, although Arthur’s lab the Waitakere ranges has now been replaced with the hi-tech wizardry surrounding Snell at the University of Texas South-Western Medical Center in Dallas.

Rather than consigning older adults to their armchairs and a quiet senescence Snell wants to elevate those heart rates and keep alive the competitive spirit. “I believe strongly that successful aging, i.e., physical and mental independence throughout the lifespan, cannot be achieved without regular vigorous exercise.”

This view challenges the focus of global Public Health physical activity recommendations that were set in the 1990s. These guidelines state that moderate intensity physical activity on most days (with a bit of vigorous activity thrown in for good measure) is sufficient to maintain good health. Snell believes that we need to push the vigorous intensity message harder. “I believe the “expert” committees, who promulgate recommendations, have ignored the evidence that vigorous exercise is more beneficial than light to moderate exercise. The more muscle fibres that are activated during exercise, the better the adaptation to the activity. These committees have adopted a pragmatic position preferring to encourage people to do something, even if it is light exercise rather than nothing. ”While there is merit in doing something (especially in terms of mental health) – and it is a start – “we should not shy away from the notion more effort should result in better health” advises Snell.

“I believe strongly that successful aging, throughout the lifespan, cannot be achieved without regular vigorous exercise.”

Snell though acknowledges that running takes a toll, especially on those ligaments. “An important limitation to running (and other sports) in older individuals is the pain of knee osteoarthritis  and a variety of other aches and pains that tend to reduce motivation. The key for most people is finding an activity that they enjoy and will do regularly. With orienteering, I will work regularly on my fitness to perform better at monthly events. Some physical educators feel that competition just favours a few talented individuals; however I believe that many people find competition increases their motivation to prepare with more of a sense of purpose to do better.

With joint pain Snell notes that there are a variety of treatments from anti-inflammatory drugs, injections of lubricating material and the supplements glucosamine and chondroitin, to joint replacements. Snell is wary of the supplements which  have  not been successful in major clinical trials, while drugs have side-effects and of course joint replacements are expensive. Peter Snell has his own solution to some of the aches and pains that come with running and other activities as we enter Masters’ territory and beyond. He has discovered the benefits of Omega3 fish oils (scientific terms eicosapentaenoic acid EPA and docosahexaenoic acid DPA). Snell explains;

“At 70 I am able to play racquetball without anti-inflammatory drugs. The efficacy of the Omega-3 fatty acids in reducing chronic inflammation and associated arthritic pain is backed by lots of hard science including clinical trials. Damage to joints is not simply due to mechanical stress, but to the over-expression of a particular protein (the cytokine interleukin-1: IL-1) which damages cartilage. Through natural ageing, our defence against IL-1 is reduced, but can be mitigated by regular exercise and Omega 3. The effective dose is 2.5-3 grams daily,” Snell advises.

Although such a dominant athlete of one sport, Snell’s own life provides other lessons through his interest and involvement in a wide range of sport and recreation. Snell has ‘had a go’ (often to a high standard) at a veritable menu of activities from tennis, cricket, running, orienteering, squash (racquet-ball in the States parlance), cycling and more.

“I feel that it is a mistake to rely on one activity. For example running is excellent for the heart, circulation and leg muscles, but does little for upper body strength and fitness. A range of activities preferably weight bearing that provide a challenge to many muscle groups is desirable.”

Snell adds that the activities need to be enjoyable as well as challenging. There are so many great options.

“Hiking and brisk walking, swimming, cycling, kayaking, rowing, racquet games are good examples. Here in the US a lot of middle-aged people play in soccer leagues and pick-up basketball.”

Proud of New Zealand’s sport and physical activity history

Peter Snell typifies the modesty of our national icons in the mould of Sir Edmund Hillary, Sir Murray Halberg and Sir Peter Blake. Sir Peter asked that the appelation ‘Sir’ be dropped from this article. Yet he will allow himself an expression of some pride when talking about the country of his birth, a small spirited country that occupies a special place in the sporting world.

“I believe New Zealand is generally regarded as having the best sporting accomplishments per capita of any nation in the World. New Zealand has greater participation in sports and physical activities than any nation on earth, thanks to its pioneering traditions, favourable climate and system of clubs and volunteers.”

A final word

Sir Peter leaves us with one final piece of advice in underscoring Lydiard’s core theory – now really a natural law of running, “Training for improved performance involves first developing a sound base through long-distance running and then using interval training techniques to do a large volume of running that matches the intensity of the event, and alternating hard and easy days to avoid overtraining.”

The integrity of this law is no better demonstrated than in the story of Sir Peter Snell himself.