My view? Everybody is a runner. Nobody is “a runner.”

Perhaps the most important benefit of systems thinking, as it relates to our way of thinking, is that it lets us grasp the notion that a lot of things in the world that seem immutable actually aren’t immutable—they’re just kept that way.

“By what?” You might ask.

By a systemic structure.

One of the key concepts of systems thinking is that “events” are generated by patterns of behavior, which are in turn generated by a systemic structure. This structure is predicated on certain underlying principles—certain goals and ideas that cause the system to have that particular shape:


Our experiences of who is “a runner;” who has “a runner’s body type,” etc., are no exception.

Continue reading My view? Everybody is a runner. Nobody is “a runner.”

Meditation: could it be a running-specific recovery tool?

I meditate as a way to maintain overall mental health, keep my mind clean of obstructions, and to synchronize some of the body’s vital systems like the cardiovascular system and the lungs. In other words, I use meditation for “general maintenance,” if you will. But recently, I made the discovery that meditation has been (at least for me) an amazing postrun activity, especially to let the body wind down after a long run.

Thanks to this discovery, I’ve begun to use meditation (in addition to its generalized, catch-all nature) in a much more surgical fashion. When I meditate after a long run, I find that I have very little muscle soreness, and my recovery from the run begins soon after. I’ve been able to increase my training volume quite noticeably, since my resting heart rate remains consistently low, at 42-47 bpm.

Throughout my experience with meditation, I’ve used different forms of it towards different ends, although most of them come from the discipline and tradition of Zen. Without going into much detail, Zen centers on the ability to perceive the world in a “purer” fashion—in other words, free of the constructs that society creates, and the heuristics that our cognitive machinery uses to allow us to navigate our world.

The type of Zen meditation that I’ve used here is best referred to as “observing the breath.” Its purpose is to observe what the body does—to sit with the body (in its company, if you will)—and just let its processes run its course. Think of it in terms of “observing and allowing.”

By doing that, I realized that something really interesting began to happen.

Usually, I get back from a long run, and my breathing winds down within a minute. I’m tired, and my muscles are tired, and I sit down and rest for a while. For sure, I’ll drink some water. And a couple of hours later, I start feeling the onset of muscle soreness.

But when I started to meditate directly after the long run, regardless of how tired I was—or rather especially if I was extremely tired—I realized that, as soon as I achieved a meditative state, my breathing started to wind back up again. Of its own volition, my body starts taking deep breaths, in which the lungs completely fill and empty. This usually keeps up for like 6-10 minutes, and then my breath gradually starts winding down. Just to let the process run its course completely, I usually remain in a meditative state for about 20 minutes.

So, why did I start breathing harder if I was meditating?

Here’s my hypothesis:

When I get back from a long run and just “go chill,”  my mind isn’t in “observation mode,” it’s in “doing mode” or “thinking mode.” So, once the long run is over, my mind comes up with other ideas of what it should be doing. The processes that were going on during the long run, such as metabolizing a high volume of lactate thanks to accelerated breathing, get overriden by newer processes, and forgotten before they have a chance to fully conclude.

So, when my long run ends, I believe that my body still has a hell of a lot of lactate that needs to be metabolized—but the necessary oxygen flow just … stops.

On the other hand, when I went into meditation—into “observation” mode—after the long run, I removed my mind from the equation. This was about sitting with the body and watching the body intently, and letting it do whatever. And what it chose to do was to increase the respiratory rate and depth of respirations dramatically. Why did this happen? Again, what I have is only conjecture, but I think that what happened is that my body decided that the best thing it could be doing for its own sake was to continue metabolizing the by-products of exercise (such as its heavyweight: lactate). For this, it needs a lot of oxygen—much, much more than I usually give it, in the minutes directly after the conclusion of my long runs.

It seems like that’s why my body decided to increase my rate of breathing.

I’d like to hear your thoughts about this in the comments. I’m convinced that this works on myself. But I’m curious what you use meditation for (if you use it at all). I’m especially interested in your doubts, and in the plausibility of what I discuss in this post. Also, if you think you may have ideas on a possible experimental design to test the correlation between meditation and the opportunity for continued lactate metabolism, do tell.

I’d like to engage with the subject of meditation (and my experiences of it) in a much more academically and experimentally rigorous sense.

From maximalist to minimalist footwear (and back): a lesson in resilience, and in “shifting the burden” systems.

The popularity of the trend of minimalist (zero-drop, low-cushioning) shoes has coincided with a sharp increase in running injuries, according to some sources. This has caused a large amount of community, media, and legal blowback on minimalist shoes, the most salient of which is the recent class-action lawsuit against Vibram, for misleading advertisement.

Misleading advertisement should always be punished. Vibram peddled their five-fingers shoes as the solution to running injuries. They are not. They should never have been advertised that way.

But this blowback has created an unfortunate tendency: blaming the minimalist shoes themselves as the cause of injury.

They aren’t the cause. Although this may seem contradictory, it is the fact that so many people get injured when switching from “maximalist” (shoes that are highly-cushioned; often with an elevated heel) to minimalist shoes—but not vice versa—that suggests that minimalist shoes are better for the biomechanics of human running.

This apparent contradiction can be resolved—but in order to do that we must look at the issue from a systems thinking perspective. And for that, we have to begin with the concept of “resilience.”

Continue reading From maximalist to minimalist footwear (and back): a lesson in resilience, and in “shifting the burden” systems.

Systemic paradigms and their repercussions: the athletic phenomenon of “heel-striking,” and its origins in scientific reductionism.

It would be misleading to say that the philosophical currents that drive society affect our behavior and influence events. It’s much more accurate to say that those philosophical currents largely determine our patterns of behavior and generate those events.

The widespread and damaging athletic phenomenon of heel-striking is no exception.

(By “heel-striking” I refer to the global set of gait characteristics which results in the runner putting their weight on the heel of the landing foot ahead of the center of mass).

Systems thinking proposes that our “mental models”—our belief systems about the world—create the very fabric of society, and therefore the patterns of behavior that emerge. The repercussions that our worldview has on our thought, our social structure, and our lives, are vast, and they are powerful.

Continue reading Systemic paradigms and their repercussions: the athletic phenomenon of “heel-striking,” and its origins in scientific reductionism.

Don’t run above your pay grade: the (not so) hidden dangers of maximalist shoes.

There is a segment of the running community that continues to insist that maximalist shoes are the way to go, and that minimalism is nothing but a “fad.” This insistence goes against every biomechanical and physical principle that I can think of. One of the ways in which maximalist shoes violate these mechanical principles is by having wide soles. This is incremental: the more maximalist, the greater the violation.

When running in maximalist shoes, the impact forces incurred during the landing phase are much greater. Take for example the following picture, which shows the back of a shod and an unshod foot. When the foot is fully pronated at the point of ground contact, the sole forms an acute angle with the ground. The vertex of the angle is the outside of the foot; the point of contact. When the runner is unshod, the sides of this angle aren’t very long. I represent this as the innermost arc (from the vertex). However, when the runner is shod, the sides of the angle are much longer; this is the outermost arc.

shoe vs. foot

Because the arc is much longer when the foot is shod, the inside of the foot will accelerate over a comparatively longer distance (the length of the bigger arc) in order to lay flat on the ground. This means that the overall forces that travel up through the foot and into the leg are that much greater when running in big-soled shoes.

There are two important points here: first, the modern running shoe was designed to artificially extend the stride. As the stride extends, the impact forces are greater and greater. This isn’t a problem when the runner’s muscles have developed to extend the stride; most likely they have also developed to absorb and dissipate those increased impact forces. But when the stride is lengthened artificially, the runner hasn’t “earned” the right to interact with those forces—and they’ll get injured.

Similarly, the shod foot in particular has no business having a wider sole. By definition, a habitually shod foot is weaker than a habitually unshod foot. And because the forces created upon landing/supination are much greater when shod than when unshod, the possibility of injury skyrockets: the weakened structure is generating with forces much greater than those which the stronger structure would ever generate.

That’s a bit of a problem.

But there is a second point to be made here: this analysis is based on simple physics and geometry. And yet, the multibillion-dollar running shoe industry pays very little heed to the physical, biological, and mechanical principles by which the body moves, and by which it grows and develops.

Out on the road, halfway into the marathon, the maximalist/minimalist debate doesn’t matter. Out there, you aren’t debating the minimalists. You’re debating physics. You’re debating biology. You’re debating geometry. If the worldview that you approach that debate with doesn’t heed the relevant laws and principles, you’re going to lose. In direct measure to how badly you lose this debate, will be the magnitude of your injuries.

The Tales of Forgotten Subsystems, part III: aerobic respiration, a.k.a The Krebs Cycle.

What if I told you that by running at a lower intensity, you could boost your running efficiency by 600%?

You’d think I was lying.

Well, I’m not. That’s exactly what happens when we run at the right intensity. When we’re burning sugars anaerobically, the sugar only gets partially processed by the cell, and out comes lactate. But when we burn them aerobically, that lactate goes through another process: The Krebs Cycle.

Continue reading The Tales of Forgotten Subsystems, part III: aerobic respiration, a.k.a The Krebs Cycle.