Category Archives: Linguistic Traps

Deconstructing “flexibility.”

Throughout our lives, most of us have heard that it is extremely important for us to be “flexible,” for a variety of reasons. Off the top of my head, I’ve been told that flexibility is important to make movement easier, so that my joints don’t deteriorate, and so that I don’t get hurt lifting heavy objects. This is excellent advice. But the problem is that basically all of us go about achieving greater flexibility in exactly the wrong way: by stretching, or more specifically, static stretching. And that is because we don’t understand the concept of flexibility in a mechanically useful way.

One of the main physiological problems of westernized people is poor biomechanics—a phemonemon that basically boils down to the idea that the muscles across our bodies are badly synchronized. Simply stated, they don’t know how to work well together, and when they are subjected to trying circumstances (such as exercise or age), the mechanisms freeze up and become damaged.

For some non-athletes, stretching may help initially. In a very low-risk environment, stretching helps these frozen mechanisms because it increases the net joint range of motion (ROM). This means that the joint can go just a little more before it gets hurt. But that doesn’t solve the problem: the muscles haven’t become synchronized; we’ve only ameliorated the symptoms because we’ve created ROM by isolating the muscles (due to stretchier tendons and weaker muscles), instead of developing their synchronization.

This is a classic case of a systems management problem called “shifting the burden.” We have a perceived need to increase flexibility (because of a particular set of assumptions), and we shift the burden of flexibility away from synchronization and towards isolation. When the symptoms ameliorate, we think that the problem is solved, and we subject it to higher-risk circumstances, such as sports. Soon, we find ourselves caught in an unending roller-coaster of injury.

We can solve this problem. But in order to do so, we must deconstruct our notions of “flexibility.”

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Knowledge, “the tyranny of ethnography,” and our personal athletic horizons.

Our athletic potential is based largely on the biological traits humans acquired in evolutionary time, while our athletic horizons are mostly built around our experience of the athletic feats of people in our society. We are not in a position to make judgments about our own athletic potential.

Daniel Lieberman, the chief proponent of the endurance running hypothesis, has continually fielded criticisms that humans could not have evolved as endurance runners, because the cognitive burdens of persistence hunting, such as the need for tracking, would have been too great for early hominids to bear (among other things).

In a 2007 paper, Lieberman et. al. respond to such criticisms suggesting that (among other things), “less-encephalized mammals than humans”—i.e. those with smaller brains—are quite capable trackers, etc. Throughout the paper, the authors suggest that such criticisms come from the observation of modern hunter-gatherer groups, such as the Bushmen. They point out that spears and other hunting techniques are relatively recent inventions (from the early stone age), which fundamentally altered the ways in which humans hunted and scavenged.

Continue reading Knowledge, “the tyranny of ethnography,” and our personal athletic horizons.

Why we can’t “get fit:” Societal standards, negative-feedback loops, and the hedonic treadmill.

Many of us work out to “get fit.” But “getting fit” doesn’t really exist in the world, except as an ill-defined idea. In a multitude of ways, it’s just vague: The “standard” for fitness is mostly unclear—is it how bodies perform? Is it how bodies that can supposedly perform should look? What particular kind of performance is it? Running? Bodybuilding? Or is it about looking like we can perform some particular physical activity (regardless of whether we actually can)?

But let’s not stop here: “Getting fit” is vague in various other ways: When does it “end”? (In other words, how do we know we’ve “gotten” fit)? Is it when we’ve reached some particular aesthetic standard? Some particular functional standard? I’ve been training for most of my life, and I’m no closer to answering these questions—not that I think they need answering.

Because these ideas are so vague, and the questions seem to yield such contradictory answers, my conclusion is that our notions of “getting fit” are (and have been) entirely missing the point.

Continue reading Why we can’t “get fit:” Societal standards, negative-feedback loops, and the hedonic treadmill.

The problem with the “foot-strike”

Proponents of minimalist and barefoot running often suggest that we should run by striking the ground with the ball of our foot (forefoot-striking). Most expert coaches these days try to get their athletes midfoot-striking (at the level of the arch). And minimalists and experts agree that both forefoot- and midfoot-striking are better than heel-strking (where the heel hits the ground before the rest of the foot).

This post isn’t about any of that.

It’s about the problem of thinking that when our foot lands on the ground, our foot must “strike.”

Why is this important? Because most common source of running injuries is undue mechanical stress. In running, we can’t get around some stress: every time that we step and the body is lifted off the ground, gravity accelerates it back to the ground. But exactly how we do that—whether we do it in a way that’s amenable to the body or not—will influence whether we become injured or not. And if we think that the action of accelerating towards the ground is supposed to be “a strike,” then our subconscious is liable to make our footfalls increasingly aggressive. They’ll tend to evoke all the things that we associate with “striking:” disruption, damage, and violent displacement.

“But we can’t damage the ground!” You might say.

My argument would end there, if it were not for Newton’s Third Law of motion: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

All the force that we put into the ground also travels into our body. And you could say: “Yeah, but we just call it striking. It doesn’t really affect our footfalls.”

If only that were the case. The brain happens to be an associative machine. Our knowledge quite literally grows by linking concepts with other concepts, and these links powerfully influence our actions. Their repercussions extend at least to the physical and social systems we navigate. As the saying goes: neurons that fire together, wire together. Neurolinguistic Programming—the idea that we can affect the ways in which we do things by thinking of them differently—is based on these scientific findings. So is most of the advertising industry, which tries to make us associate eating McDonalds with being an Olympian, and Coca-Cola with happiness.

It logically follows that if we associate footfalls with the act of striking, we’ll inevitably put greater stresses into our body than if we associated footfalls with something less violent.

That, by the way, is not a new idea. It’s all over, but rarely seen in Western culture. I believe that we care too much about combat, too much about shock-and-awe, and supremacy—ideas I don’t feel I have to justify further, given our long-standing colonial tendencies—to accommodate it easily. One example of this idea is a Tarahumara saying (which has also been attributed to the Navajo and the Apache, just to name two of many): “The fastest runner leaves no tracks.”

Other examples crop up in many, many of the cultures that have a firsthand appreciation of the biosphere (as opposed to a firsthand appreciation of a constructed world, in which the biosphere is referred to as “the wilderness” or “the outdoors”). Many of these cultures teach their youth to walk “like a leopard” or “like a tiger“—very softly, that is. To many of these cultures, there was practicality in stealth.

The point isn’t to impress upon you the alleged wisdom of the Other. I mean to make the point that the core defining values of a society, and the attitudes from which we gain social capital, will have effects all over—including in our biomechanics.

The social systems in which we live are quite capable of affecting the way in which we run, whether we’d like them or not. This assertion should not be construed to mean that we can’t have softer biomechanics if we live in these “shock-and-awe” societies. We just have to pierce through the veil of the everyday and become aware of something we used to be blind to. Basically, we have to understand what paradigms we’re coming from. We internalize the idea that our culture comes with lots of baggage, some of which may be conducive to better running and better training, and some of which may not. Having internalized this idea, we have the power to make new associations: maybe a footfall doesn’t have to be a “strike.”

I think about it in terms of “receiving” the ground. When I run, I don’t strike the ground. I don’t want my body stiff as all those forces go into it, thank you very much. I receive the ground with my foot and move it behind me, like in judo. I offer no resistance to it, like in aikido. Then, as my center of gravity moves forwards, I express myself again. With practice and mindfulness, our footfalls, our action of reception and expression, can become faster and increasingly more powerful.

Suggested Reading:

Corbett, Jim. Jungle lore. Oxford University Press, 1953.

Lee, Bruce. The art of expressing the human body. Vol. 4. Tuttle Publishing, 1998.

McDougall, Christopher. Born to Run: A hidden tribe, superathletes, and the greatest race the world has never seen. Random House LLC, 2011.

Powell, M. Norman, and Ingwe Powell. Ingwe. Kendall/Hunt, 1995.

Pulvermüller, Friedemann. “Brain mechanisms linking language and action.”Nature Reviews Neuroscience 6.7 (2005): 576-582.