Synthetic perspectives on the running human body: Improving running economy is not the be-all, end-all.

Looking at the body from a synthetic perspective is a lot like looking at it from an evolutionary perspective.

As I described in a previous post, a “synthetic account” of the body—there is no such thing as a “synthetic analysis”—is one that looks at the human animal in its whole context in order to understand why it does what it does, (and what it is attempting to do).

A few theories have a strong synthetic component: Pose Method (which looks at the mechanics of the body in the context of the Earth’s gravitational field), Tim Noakes’ Central Governor Theory as well as his discussion on thirst and hydration, and Phil Maffetone’s MAF Method (which observes that prolonged athletic achievement cannot be produced without safeguarding and promoting the body’s health).

But most accounts of athletic performance out there look at the human body in a very narrow analytic sense. They typically only measure a few variables germane to athletic performance: running economy (also known as efficiency), speed, power, endurance, etc. In other words, they look at the body in the same way you might look at a race car: you analyze how the race car functions and how it performs while on the track. But you don’t worry very much about what it’s doing or what’s happening to it elsewhere.

In this vein, it is often argued that one running form (one particular set of kinematics) is better or more advantageous than another on the grounds that it is more efficient. Take a look at the title of these articles: A Novel Running Mechanic’s Class Changes Kinematics but not Running Economyand Effect of a global alteration of running technique on kinematics and economy. 

The body has to worry about a number of things beyond running economy: it has to save itself for future battles, quickly rest and recover in order to fulfill any number of foreseen and unforeseen functions beyond the scope of the athletic event, like for example to be unstressed enough to be able to engage smoothly and creatively with social environments.

So, when sports scientists come along and suggest that the best form for a particular athletic movement is what’s most efficient (in the sense of minimizing energy expenditure during the athletic event), they are ignoring some of the body’s broader imperatives.

Why? The simple answer is that the body’s lifelong goal of protecting itself is far more important to it than the very bounded goal of winning some particular athletic event (or chasing down some particular deer) at any cost. It doesn’t just want to get the deer. It wants to benefit from having gotten it.

What does this mean? That benefiting from getting a deer means that it might be better to wait until a slower deer comes by. Let’s suppose you don’t have enough energy to run at the speed and distance you’ll need if you want to catch the deer you want, and still be able to run with the form necessary to protect your body while doing so. You might end up catching the deer, but you might also end up with a blown knee or a damaged achilles. You might be put out of commission for a month or two.

Now let’s suppose that someone else uses a slightly more expensive form—expending more energy to maintain proper movement. They’ll be proportionally slower, but they’ll also be able to move much more and recover much faster. Over time, they’ll become the more powerful runners. Three or four years down the line, they’ll be catching much faster deer, much more consistently.

Of course, it’s important to be as efficient as possible: refining the way muscles work, and aligning them to work with gravity and impact forces (and not against them). But pursuing efficiency is not at all convenient past the point where the only way to get more efficient is to risk tearing tendons, degrading cartilage and connective tissue, and abrading bone.

This brings up another important point: while the safest form has a high degree of efficiency, the checks and balances necessary to produce it (and maintain it at high speeds or over many miles) also means that it is typically more expensive to produce than the “most efficient” form.

 Let’s say that the runner who blew his knee by going after the very fast deer has form X. Form Y might be more expensive, but it would also allow him to get faster over time. But let’s say that instead of getting injured by going faster, he decides to only chase the slowest deer, or run exclusively for fun. He might display the same injury rates as runner Y. But if we only look at injury rates without looking at speed, or running economy without looking at speed, or efficiency without looking at performance improvement over time, we might end up concluding that the wrong ways of doing things are actually better (or worse, that there is no “best” way of doing something).

Being faster (or fast for longer) is great. But that’s not good enough either. The same things that we said about efficiency can also be said about speed. Running with the form that lets you be fast safely, recover quickly, and improve consistently, is waaay better than “just running fast.”

5 thoughts on “Synthetic perspectives on the running human body: Improving running economy is not the be-all, end-all.”

  1. Hi Ivan, great post as usual. Couple of questions, not particularly relating to this post but endurance training in general.
    How long do you think a long run needs to be for those who want to get faster at events such as 5K and 10K? Does it matter as long as MAF test/pace is increasing? Is the weekly long run still the most important session of the week for those training for example 5/10k? I saw a youtube video with Dr Maffetone where he said that ‘more or less whatever your distance 2.5 hours is about as long as your longest run should be – for the average person’ if you want to train longer in terms of time it should be a walk added to the end of this run.

    Also what are your thoughts on cycling and running and how they interact with each other. Do you think cycling has more crossover to running or running more to cycling ?

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    1. Thanks!

      I’d say no longer than a 10k, necessarily. I don’t put too much stock in the long run, except to make sure that I can cover a particular distance. For example, sometimes I do run 4 hour long runs but I run the majority of the time at less than MAF-20.

      Running has more crossover to cycling. This is because the critical neuromuscular component of running is the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC), which doesn’t really factor strongly into the pedaling action on the bike. So, in order to make use of your tendons and musculature in running (to be fast AND to protect yourself) you need a very well-trained SSC. And since in running you still have concentric and eccentric components, those carry over somewhat into the bike. If you’re a dedicated biker and want to cross over safely into running, I’d recommend that you take up skipping rope. Skipping rope is essentially training a coordinated SSC in a body position that is very close to the running pose. Play around with it—start with both feet, jump on one foot, alternate feet, etc. When you are bouncing on one foot, practice keeping the raised FOOT under the hips (so that the knee of your raised leg is bent ahead of your body).

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  2. Hi Ivan
    I take it you use your HR monitor when cycling? I use mine – it works perfectly when running/walking/in the gym however when I use it on the bike its very intermittent and doesn’t work properly and comes up with ridiculously high numbers or doesn’t pick up at all. Its just a basic Polar model.

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