The lay athlete, brands, and the dilemma of ornamentation.

Whenever I cross a runner who’s decked out in brand names, their sunday trip to REI or Sports Authority billboarded on their bodies, I worry for their knees.

Brands have become a way of differentiating ourselves socially—of carving our identity as separate from the person next to us, and yet displaying that we share (at least) one common belief: consumerism.

That’s okay. People shouldn’t be criticized for their philosophy on shopping (or complete and utter lack thereof). But consumerism has no place in athletics, especially as it concerns beginner athletes. Why is that? Let’s analyze the oft-repeated mantra of this philosophical current: The consumer is always right. The classical marketing machine observes and analyzes social trends and preferences, and markets accordingly. Case in point: in the early 2000s, Nike Japan carried a much, much broader array of zero-drop and otherwise minimalist shoes, than did Nike USA. In this game, science amounts to very little. Otherwise, Nike would insist on the same shoes worldwide—unless Japanese legs are mechanically a different animal than American legs. (Unlikely). It is trends and tropes alone that drive this machine.

The problem is that the lay athlete—who is legion in number, in our society—for all intents and purposes knows very little about the athletic needs of the body. And if the consumer is always right, this machine then markets to ignorance—to constructed ideas about the body and its performance—and not to the bits of wisdom that the lay athlete may possess.

The correlation between telegraphing a shouldered identity and beginner status has not gone unobserved. Bruce Lee said:

“The height of cultivation runs to simplicity. It is the halfway cultivation that runs to ornamentation.”

When, in a runner, I see brands telegraphed—when I see ornamentation—I begin to look for the signature of halfway cultivation: the breathing shallow, the bags under the eyes deeply carved into the face, the energy leaks everywhere. And usually, they’re there, and they’re conspicuous. Where halfway cultivation leads, ornamentation follows.

Contrast this with a lay runner bearing no signs of ornamentation: their energy leaks are subdued, because the travel at a speed that, mechanically speaking, they have earned. Their breathing is deep: comfort and ease is the goal, rather than the advertisement of their social status as “a runner.” Often, they are smiling: compounding the lack of physiological stress is the likelihood that instead of seeking an identity, they are out there for the pleasure of the run, and for the challenge of the athletic development. Their cheeks are flushed and lively—their heart (aided by their lungs) is amply able to service the head and brain, despite the fact that the big engines in the legs are vying for yet more oxygenated blood.

On this runner, brand names are few and far between.

Brands are not the problem. I tell everyone about my Inov-8 shoes and my Rx jump rope, because they are excellent pieces of equipment. I love wearing my orange shoes, but as the tools of my trade, not as the building blocks of my social identity.

The problem is our tendency towards ornamentation. It wouldn’t be an issue, if the supermajority of the time, ornamentation did not also signify halfway cultivation. It is important to approach every new piece of gear, every potential buy, with a question: what does this do for my athletic expression? If the answer is unclear, then chances are that buying it will obscure our ability to perceive and deal with an energy leak, a digestive inefficiency, or a flawed training routine.

The best runner leaves no tracks. The simplest, most parsimonious running stride leaves no tracks. This stride, and the runner that displays it, are hostile to ornamentation.

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