The benefits of developing a healthy, dialectic relationship with pain.

One way or another, most of us have an unhealthy relationship with pain. Either we’re scared of it, or we try to overcome it. In both situations, pain is the enemy. But our relationship with pain doesn’t have to be of enmity. If we understand it, it can become a great asset in training and in life.

This especially goes for runners: we’ve become socially conditioned to believe that running is just painful. According to society, when you run, pain is gonna happen anyway, and because running “is injurious”—it’s just that way—well, there’s no point in listening to it, to what it’s telling us about our bodies, and figuring out how to modify our running accordingly. Because running is injurious, our body will break at some point, so we might as well just wait until something happens and then go see the physical therapist.

But pain itself can help us guard against injury. We just have to get to know what it’s telling us.

Continue reading The benefits of developing a healthy, dialectic relationship with pain.

Hitting The Wall: “The Tragedy of the Commons” in the marathon.

All of us marathoners have a feared enemy: “The Wall”—that shock of exhaustion that always hits around mile 19. Those of us who are ultrarunners have gotten to know it better than our oldest friend. For some of us, it just might be our oldest friend.

We’re all beset by The Wall, until one day we outrun it, and it vanishes in the road behind us.

But why is The Wall such a shared experience? Why does it happen? And perhaps most intriguing: is it possible to find a way around it?

Yes. Systems thinking lets us explore recurring patterns of behavior, which is why it helps us to understand The Wall. The Wall isn’t inevitable; it isn’t “a fact of life” for runners. Most runners use their bodies in a particular way, and The Wall arises from the reality that most runners don’t use their bodies in the right way.

How many times have I heard a runner say, near the beginning of the race: “I’ll charge up this hill while I still have energy!”

Many. And that’s because the patterns of behavior that elicit such thinking are rampant. Continue reading Hitting The Wall: “The Tragedy of the Commons” in the marathon.

The irony of the “fitness” identity: a praise of CrossFit, and a critique of its founder.

CrossFit, in name and on paper, is an excellent form of exercise. CrossFitters achieve fitness through emphasizing the mobility and functionality of the body across many varieties of athletic skill. In my opinion, the most physiologically sound version of a human body is one in which its strengths and abilities are expressed alongside a capacity for sustained, safe, and healthy endurance running. CrossFit doesn’t emphasize the development of the “aerobic engine” necessary for that kind of endurance running. That may be my one complaint against the sport. That aside, CrossFit is as good as it gets.

As a runner, I live with the hopes of becoming fast, regardless of who’s next to me, or where I go in the world. Because of that dream, the training philosophy of CrossFit—and many of its exercises—have become a staple of my training. My simplest interpretation of the CrossFit philosophy is that a single-event athlete will be better at their best event if they are a multiple-event athlete. In other words, ability has to be cultivated across a breadth and depth of skills, for “fitness” to emerge. As the website says:

“By employing a constantly-varied approach to training, these functional movements at maximum intensity (relative to the physical and psychological tolerances of the participant), lead to dramatic gains in fitness.”

It’s there in the name: CrossFit.

Ever since hearing of CrossFit, I do more and more classic weight exercises such as the barbell squat—and have consistently made gains in speed, power, and endurance over “purer” runners. I’ve incorporated jumping rope as the ultimate plyometric and cognitive exercise: the amount of repetitions that you can put out during a jump-rope session do wonders in honing your body’s ability to exert force against the ground, and receive it safely.

CrossFit’s definition of “fitness” is the most useful I’ve ever heard of—or that CrossFit is aware of, too; it says it right there on the website. “Fitness” is defined as:

“Increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains. Capacity is the ability to do real work, which is measurable using the basic terms of physics (force, distance and time). Life is unpredictable (much more so than sport) so real world fitness must be broad and not specialized, both in terms of duration and type of effort (time and modal domains).”

This is a great definition. I can’t visualize a world where CrossFit practitioners would be anything but the supreme examples of health, if that philosophy (and this definition of fitness) were followed to the letter, and taken to their logical extreme. I’ll begin by breaking down their philosophy—(I’ll do the definition of “fitness” in a bit)—so you can see why:

Employing a constantly-varied approach to training. Taken broadly enough, this means that the concept of “training” can easily be expanded to encompass activities that aren’t typically known as “exercise.” Nutrition, for example. Developing the functional components of nutrition would be a boon to the athlete’s net power output. Seeking spiritual, social, and emotional health for their purely functional benefits, is perfectly encompassed under this philosophy.

I think back to Chris McDougall’s book, Born to Run, in which he quoted the kinds of advice that legendary track & field coach Joe Vigil would tell his athletes: “Do something nice for someone.”This is a varied  approach to training. And a coach like Vigil would only incorporate it because it helped take his athletes to another level of athletic achievement. (These kinds of “unorthodox” approaches are common across the 1% of the elite: Bruce Lee trained “breaking habits,” and when that became a habit, he would break that one too).

Let’s analyze the phrase “movements at maximum intensity, relative to the physical and psychological tolerances of the participant.” This phrase implies a systemic understanding, in which the athlete is not perceived to be a machine, but a person with a unique reality, a unique set of circumstances, that can influence their athletic output at any given time. This is a call to empathy for of the trainers, and a call to self knowledge for the athletes.

Let’s move on to the definition of fitness: “Increased work capacity across broad time and modal domain.” On the surface, this means that the athlete should have speed, power, and endurance.

But let’s look at the definition a little bit more deeply. Especially in conjunction with the phrase “relative to physical and phsychological tolerances,” I could easily argue that one such “broad time domain” is a lifetime. In other words, embedded within the very definition of “fitness,” as put forth by CrossFit, is the argument that health entails fitness: there must be health if the athlete will be “fit.” Under that definition, losing “fitness” because of a lack of health means that what seemed like fitness wasn’t fitness, but was instead a façade—a social performance of fitness that broke down under the assault of time.

Only in view of that impressive philosophy can this next part be so damn ironic. I recently read a New York Times article critiquing the obsession of Westerners with physical fitness. The article quoted extensively from an interview with Greg Glassman, CrossFit’s founder. The NYT article’s critique of the fitness craze centers around Glassman’s 2005 admission that CrossFit had become a breeding ground for an exercise-induced condition called rhabdomyolysis, which can lead to kidney failure. According to the New York Times article, Glassman viewed the rampant “exertional rhabdo” problem as part of CrossFit’s “dominance over traditional training protocols.”

This is absurd—and not only in reference to a “reasonable person’s” idea of fitness.

The idea that a dangerous kidney condition is a marker of fitness goes against CrossFit’s stated definition of fitness—the potential for increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains. Furthermore, persevering through exercise despite the onset of rhabdomyolysis is a serious breach of the idea that intensity should be measured relatively to the physical and psychological tolerances of the participant.

But wait! There’s more.

According to the NYT article, Glassman also wrote: “Until others join CrossFit athletes in preparing…the exertional rhabdo problem will be ours to shoulder alone.”

You just can’t make this stuff up.

Glassman’s writing reminds me of something I read in a book called The China Study, about the physiological effects of eating animal protein (specifically, of its contributions to cancer and heart disease). In that book, the authors quoted a physician saying that heart disease was the burden of man, and that only “the effeminate” would pursue other, healthier, avenues of eating to escape it.

In these two examples, these “experts” on health have structured their identity around the ill effects of their chosen activities! When the marker of being “a man” is heart disease, it becomes impossible for anyone subordinated to those social circumstances to seek a healthy lifestyle.

Similarly, if it is the presence of exertional rhabdo that makes CrossFit so “superior”—at least in the eyes of its founder—then the presence of rhabdo in the athlete quite naturally becomes the high watermark of achievement. In direct opposition to the stated philosophy and mission of his fitness empire, Glassman has set up a dangerous situation for his followers: if they haven’t suffered the ill effects of exercise, that means they haven’t been training hard enough!

The problem here isn’t CrossFit. It is the discrepancy between what CrossFit proposes on paper and what its founder touts as the “CrossFit identity.” This should serve as yet another reminder of the fact taht there is often an abyss between what a particular training regimen does for us, and what it is supposed to do. Often, the problem isn’t in how we follow it, but in how we don’t—or more specifically, how we overshoot.

If the reasons for which we overshoot are based on a set of social beliefs that we have created around us—that have long since been divorced of any knowledge of the world (or were never based on that knowledge in the first place)—we are treading dangerous waters. Often, we can’t even see them. Not when it counts. We might be able to laugh at those ironies over a couple of beers, but once in the gym, they will consume us and guide our efforts. If we have taken an identity upon ourselves, all of our exertions will be in service of that identity.

And if that identity centers around illness or overtraining, it doesn’t matter what athleticism we have cultivated as a short-term side-effect of our exertions. We will lose it.

We live and train in social systems. Often, those systems do no favors to the physical, psychological and biological systems on which our athletic output is predicated. Our identity—which is based largely on the demands of that social system—will shape our choice of exercises, the intensity, duration, and frequency with which we do them, and the efficiency of our rest and recovery. What’s on paper never reflects the reality of the situation. The social system, via our identity, informs the effectiveness of our athletic development. 

Let’s make sure that social system, and that identity (or lack thereof), is the right one.

UPDATE: For an answer to the NYT article critiquing “extreme fitness,” see this Outside Magazine article. I’d love to hear your thoughts and answers to any of these articles, and this blog post, in the comments.

Meditation: an epic training tool. Slow yourself down to become faster.

Meditation calms the mind. It lets us collect the various parts of ourselves and bring them together to work on a specific objective. That objective can be to develop our athletic expression.

In training and life, it often happens that things just aren’t going our way. We’re in such a hurry that we stop functioning well: we drop a vase, and then we have to hurry even more to clean it up. The cycle just quickens—hurry only begets more hurry.

Paradoxically, in order to move faster, we have to learn how to slow down. But when the pressure’s up, that’s usually the very last thing we want to do. The ability to defuse those impulses is what separates good performers from the very best. That’s why you often hear in the Special Forces: “slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” As I’ve discussed before, elite performers understand that when there is too much speed in a system—when they get the jitters—things start to go bad. On the other hand, when the non-elites see the elites moving faster, they assume (based on their mental models) that it is because the elites are putting more speed into the system.
Continue reading Meditation: an epic training tool. Slow yourself down to become faster.

Are you obsessed with getting fit?

The New York Times just came out with an article about the American fascination with “extreme fitness.”

The article critiques this trend on several grounds:

  • People are paying money to mimic hard labor; why not just go work construction?
  • The fitness trends of today are usually modeled after a watered-down version of “ultramasculine” groups like Navy Seals.
  • In these trends, “fitness” is often achieved at the cost of health. The NYT article that this isn’t fitness at all.

I have a post in the makings about my own opinions on these things, but first, I’d like to hear what you have to say.

Read the article (also linked here)—or don’t—and tell me what you think about the extreme fitness trends (or the critiques of it) in the comments.

Anything goes.

Training starts with an idea. Make sure that idea is correct.

More and more of the newer science seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom.

This trend brings into question everything that we know—and more importantly, everything that we think we know.

Sitting in the armchair, this isn’t a problem. If we theorize about the differences between barefoot and shod running, and never actually go out for a run, never actually pushing the system to observe its behaviors, theory seems like a great idea. It seems like all we need to do.

But we don’t do theory for its own sake. The point of theory is for it to help us in practice. So we go out and run, and if our mental model—our suppositions, assumptions, beliefs, and beliefs about our knowledge—is different from how the world actually works, the discrepancies between that mental model and the real world will begin to show up as pain on our knees.

One of the reasons I love running is because out on the road, mental models accelerate towards the ground at 32.2 ft/s2. The collision between our mental model and the ground is as close to truth as we lay athletes are ever going to get.

Writing this was brought on when I read a post by The Gait Guys, talking about achilles tendonitis, and possible solutions to it. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the way to reduce achilles tendonitis is by shortening the achilles tendon, a.k.a. raising the heel on the shoe.

Why? Simple. If you raise the heel of a shoe, you loosen the achilles, so it’s not carrying the weight of the body anymore. By all counts, that should do the trick.

(It doesn’t).

But that’s the problem. This solution was thought up in the armchair, and never tested in practice. Theoretically, it should work. But that’s because a theory is a mental model: a self-contained little idea of the world. Given the rules of that model, raising the heel is an excellent solution. Now, all that has to happen is for that model to coincide with the realities of the body.

In academic circles, those kinds of suppositions are known as “pipe dreams.”

The body isn’t just a series of simple machines put together. It is a complex entity, built from stacks and stacks of systems, each doing a different job. And the job of one of those systems is to regulate impact force by using touch receptors.

Because that subsystem—the central nervous system—is also at play, the behaviors of the body/system will be “unpredictable.” But it’s only unpredictable because the theoretical model doesn’t account for that subsystem.

When we account for this system, its actual behavior seems a lot more reasonable: in order to maintain tension on the achilles, the body raises the foot as the leg approaches the ground. However, this means that the leg can accelerate for a longer period of time, making the initial contact forces that much more powerful.

We need to understand the systems we’re playing with.

We need to go out and test them, and get a feel for their behavior. The phrase “push the envelope” comes from test pilots: every one of those pilots climbed into the cockpit fully aware of the mathematical model that predicted the flight capabilities of the airplane—also called the “flight envelope.” Pushing the envelope literally means taking the plane into unpredicted territory—literally pushing the aircraft beyond what the mathematical predictions say that it can take.

Dangerous? Yes. Necessary? Absolutely. The reason flying such a safe mode of transportation these days is because a few brave and knowledgeable people understood that there is a big discrepancy between the armchair and the road—between the predictive model and the actual system.

Let’s take these lessons and put them into our running. Let’s push our own running envelopes to see what sorts of behaviors our body exhibits—and then modify our training and adapt accordingly.

Shocking Revelation on Why You Quit Exercise!

An excellent post by The Zeit on how our attitudes towards exercise shape our athletic gains!

A good reminder that we can never separate the physical from the psychological.

The Zeit

Asian woman fed up of exercise Do You Really Know Why You Quit Exercise? photo by Ambro

You could be exercising and eating right and still not getting the results you should. You know why? The surprising answer could be that you are suffering from the “nocebo” effect. It’s the evil twin brother of the “placebo” effect.

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