Eli Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints in running coaching: can we reliably create sustained athletic achievement in runners?

“Sustained athletic achievement” is a phrase seldom heard when talking about runners. By now, nobody needs to quote the staggering injury statistics in Western running populations: According to an epidemiological study, there are 2.5 to 12.1 injuries for every 1000 hours of running. 20 to 70% of those injuries are recurring, and 30 to 90% of those injuries result in a reduction in training.

Is this because running is inherently injurious? Probably not—and some would argue that we’re in no position to know: the rates of injury aren’t due to the fact that we’re running, but instead due to the fact that we’re running unprepared. In Movement, Gray Cook writes that “many times, the activity gets the blame when the blame should be placed on the poor foundation the innocent activity was placed upon.”

Let’s translate this: are our calves mobile and strong? Are our hips stable? Are our flexors and extensors working well together with our abductors and adductors? These are questions that runners typically only ask themselves after an injury or ten.

Whenever we train an athletic activity such as running, it’s important to figure out what might hold our training back, rather than just going out to hit the pavement and hope for the best. There is a theoretical framework that may provide us with a systematic way of finding solutions to these widespread problems: Eli Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints (TOC).

At the general level, the Theory of Constraints consists of 5 steps:

  1. Identify the system’s constraint.
  2. Decide how to exploit the system’s constraint.
  3. Subordinate everything else to the above decision.
  4. Elevate the system’s constraint.
  5. Find the new constraint.

In Critical Chain: the theory of constraints applied to project management, Graham K. Rand writes: “The system’s constraint is the part of the system that constrains the objective of the system.”

Overuse injuries in running are rarely generalized. In other words, it’s always something specific: either a bad knee, or shin splints, or plantar fasciitis is stopping us. In other words, that’s the constraint that doesn’t let us log more miles.

A lot of us are really good at doing the first two steps. We already identified the constraint (at least superficially speaking)—say it was a tight IT band. Then comes step two: deciding how to exploit the system’s constraint. We roll out our tight IT band, so that we can log as many miles as possible.

But a lot of us don’t get past step 2: we keep logging miles and more miles, until our IT band is so sore that we can’t run at all. Doing step 3 would mean figuring out how many miles we can run without injury. Here’s the problem: if we actually did an honest assessment, the answer would typically be “not many.” Certainly not enough to train for a marathon, probably just enough to train for a 10k.

Which brings up to step 4. We’re trying to train for a marathon—or train for a fast 5k—and this IT band doesn’t let us go far or fast. What do we need to do? Elevate the system’s constraint. Otherwise, that tight IT band won’t let us develop the speed or endurance we need for our event.

When you look at the problem of athletic development broadly, it doesn’t make much sense to spend time and effort developing endurance when a problematic knee or IT band isn’t letting you progress.

In Critical Chain, Eli Goldratt writes: “What property typifies the chain? It is the strength of the chain. If one link breaks, just one link, the chain is broken. The strength of the chain drops to zero.”

This is the tired story of overuse injuries and recurring injury in runners. We often sideline ourselves by running through injury. We break the chain, instead of strengthening it.  We try to increase our endurance, when ironically our present endurance may be greater than we know—but we can’t experience it, given that the system is constrained by a malfunctioning part.

We should always focus on the weak link. “Remember,” Goldratt writes. “You are not really interested in my link. You are interested in the chain. If I made my link stronger, how much did I improve the strength of your chain? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

In previous posts, I’ve alluded to the possibility that “the plateau” may be deeply related to the flawed thinking that Goldratt attempts to correct: perhaps the case is that we’re training endurance when the constraint of the system is strength, or hip stability. We don’t see gains in endurance because we don’t address the constraint, and we perceive that we “plateaued.”

What’s the problem? Why did we miss the constraint?

The problem, Goldratt proposes, may be in our ideas and in our personal culture. A typical assumption in project management is that “the only way to achieve good global performance (is through good local performance everywhere.” Although this idea seems to make sense at face value, Goldratt disagrees: “The fact that so many managers and almost all our systems are based on this assumption is regarded by TOC as the core problem…”

Project management and athletic training are not so far apart: the same problem is present in both. Look at your training plan.Most athletic programs look for good local performance everywhere. Chances are that your training plan is similar to many other training plans: do fartlek, strength training, endurance, cardio.  The mainstream philosophy is to hit every side of the problem, all at once. Of course this works, in the sense that the body develops, but does it work well?

By the best standards, probably not. And if you keep getting sidelined by injury, certainly not.

I hope to have shown that the principles provided by the Theory of Constraints can be easily adapted to create a system for athletes and coaches, by which they can jointly achieve two objectives that are typically at odds with each other: injury prevention/management and athletic development. Applying the Theory of Constraints to athletic coaching may allow us to define athletic development in such a way that these two objectives cease to be in conflict. I believe that on a deep level, this conflict of interests is the likeliest culprit of the staggering running injury statistics. Settling it will benefit athletes, coaches, and the running culture in general.

I’ll devote my next post to fleshing out the details of this conflict of interest (and how to resolve it).

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