Category Archives: Principles of Training

Is there really a difference between “injury-prevention” and “training specificity”?

A lot of us are familiar with sports specificity: you tailor your training to achieve greater performance in individual sports. Some of us go as far as being “event-specific.” We train trails for trail running events. We practice running the inclines and hill lengths we’re likely to encounter during the event.

But I think that we can take the concept of training specificity a lot further: particularly as it pertains to the realm of injury prevention.

What does an injury mean from the perspective of athletic competency? It means that there was some stress, supposedly germane to the sport, that the body simply could not tolerate. Presumably, this is a stress that the body can (and should) adapt to.

I’m not talking about obscene stresses such as the micro-concussions that have been shown to cause brain damage in football players. I’m talking about simpler things: dehydration and hypoglycemia after a marathon, shin splints, etc.

Let’s take shin splints, for example. Shin splints are reputed to occur due to the repetitive stress associated with running. Shin splints—and the subsequent stress fracture—cause people to lose training time and training quality, increase the overall stress of training, etc.

My point is this: an inability to cope with a particular stress (resulting in an injury) is a bottleneck to development.

If an injury prevents a runner from improving, or puts their athletic future at risk (and it does), then injury-prevention should be at the very top of the priority list. Put another way, injury-prevention is the ultimate sports-specific training: it means training the body not just to get better at the sport, but to train the body to handle the basic stresses associated with the sport.

This is a difficult proposition for many people: it is different on a case-by-case basis. The same symptom (shin splints) can have a multitude of causes. When the issue is the amount of stress, increasing lower-leg strength by itself can solve the problem. But others may need to fix an imbalance between the front and back muscles of the lower leg, for example. Others yet may be erroneously unburdening the big calf muscles by giving the job of knee flexion entirely to the hamstrings.

Failure to address any of these issues can dramatically reduce the training response: tighter muscles and less mobility means less neuromuscular feedback. But a higher heart rate is necessary to drive stiff (and weak) muscles. This means more stress. And because some muscles are stiff, the body geometry is disadvantageous: it isn’t going to align itself (or remain aligned) with the primary vectors of force.

Fixing any of these issues will allow the body to learn from and adapt to the sport. Ultimately, I believe that the runner who “paradoxically” spends time correcting muscle imbalances or strategically strengthening bone, muscle, tendon, and connective tissue—and running less miles because of it—will need to run far fewer miles to observe the benefits of training.

We need to make the choice to not merely roll out our tight quads or hip adductors after the fact. I think we need to address the underlying cause of that tightness (a process which may or may not include myofascial release). And I think that we need to put this within the larger context of our training and racing: in no way does injury prevention or rehab constitute “taking time off” from training.

Preventing injuries and doing the rehab is a much better—and more honest— example of “training the body” than going out and slogging miles that are just going to put us back on the table. In every way that matters, we’re doing the training that our body needs, right now.  Tomorrow, we’ll be able to go out and do the training we want, and achieve the effects that we want.

And how much happier, faster, and healthier would we end up if we can trick ourselves into wanting to do the training our body needs?

Defining the “long run” for better endurance training.

The long run is touted by many to be the centerpiece of training for marathoners and other endurance runners.

Most people think of the long run as a protracted effort that causes their body to produce the mental and physical adaptations needed for endurance races. But the ways in which people prepare, fuel, and run during these long efforts are often not the most optimal. And the reason is because long runs aren’t about running long per se—they are about training the particular systems of the body that enable us to run long.

This isn’t just wordplay: I often see well-intended runners filling their hydration belts with sugary foods and energy gels in preparation for a long run.

That’s a problem.

Let’s consider which of the body’s systems are designed to help us run a long distance. We need a very abundant fuel source, as well as an engine that can burn that kind of fuel for a long time. Sugars (a.k.a. carbohydrates) won’t be a good primary fuel source: they exist in relatively small quantities inside the body compared to fats. Furthermore, the Type II (fast-twitch) muscle fibers that utilize them fatigue quickly.

So we need to rely heavily on a more plentiful fuel: fats. In order to burn fats, we’ll need to use several systems: the hormones that help break down and transport fat, and the Type I (slow-twitch) muscle fibers that can burn them (as well as the lungs, heart, and blood vessels, which together allow oxygen to get to the muscle fibers and enable fat utilization).

Running for a long time is all about burning fats. But when a runner depends on sugar to fuel their long runs, as far as the metabolism is concerned, it’s not a long run.

Using sugars to fuel the long run means that (1) not only is the quickly-fatiguing sugar-burning engine being used for much longer than it’s designed for, but (2) it’s only being relied upon because the engine that is supposed to do the job isn’t powerful enough to produce the required activity levels.

The body is getting tired and worn down at an absurd rate. But that’s also only happening because it was already not capable enough to run that fast for that long.

As the body gets tired, it gets stressed. As it gets stressed, it use of oxygen declines, and it starts being forced to consume sugar anaerobically—without the presence of oxygen. This compounds the problem: the main by-product of anaerobic activity—lactate—suppresses the body’s ability to use fat for fuel.

What does this do to our definition of a “long run”?

I like to define the “long run” as a run that occurs (1) below a threshold of stress that allows for burning fat at a very high level, and (2) long enough that the various systems necessary for burning those fats (and for supporting and moving the body for the duration) become challenged enough to develop.

In my opinion, the ratio of fat to sugar utilization necessary for a run to qualify as a “long run” is 42% fats and 58% sugar, a Respiratory Quotient (RQ) of .87. This measure correlates with the aerobic threshold—the highest level of activity at which virtually all of the body’s energy is being processed in the presence of oxygen.

While the percentage of fat utilization at this point is already declining, after an RQ of .87 it begins to drop much more quickly. Since the lactate produced by anaerobic activity inhibits fat usage, the percentage of sugar used increases dramatically.

You can get an RQ test at any exercise lab, or even some doctor’s offices. But my favorite way of finding a ballpark measure of the aerobic threshold is Phil Maffetone’s 180-Formula. The 180-Formula gives you the heart rate at which you reach your aerobic threshold, which makes it very easy to keep track of your fat utilization while running.

Using sugars to support ourselves through a long-run is a self-defeating endeavor. We won’t create the adaptations we hope for. Because the body hasn’t adapted, we’re subjecting it to stresses it can’t really handle. It’s not going to grow that well, or that quickly, or in the direction we want it to, and it might break down on us a few times along the way.

Let’s keep our long runs easy enough.

UPDATE (10:46 AM, 12/14/15) : I’d previously written that total fat utilization was at its peak at an RQ of .87. A reader pointed out to me that this wasn’t the case.

UPDATE (11:35 AM, 12/14/15): I should mention that the criteria I discuss in this article are perhaps necessary but not sufficient to call something a “long run”: Commenter “Van” suggested that a better definition for “long run” is that which occurs at the heart rate which corresponds with the maximum rate of fat oxidation (rather than the maximum rate of oxygen use at which there is no anaerobic function). I’m not convinced at this point, but I’ll be sure to update again—or maybe write a follow-up post—if that changes.

The Overlooked Mystery of Movement, Unlocked: My experience with the Pose Method Sports Technique Specialist Certification

Movement isn’t generated by muscles.

This is the central theoretical point made by Dr. Nicholas Romanov, founder of The Pose Method, when teaching movement. He points out that the similarities between all the different human movements—swimming, walking, pitching, kicking—run deep, while the differences (which we naïvely believe are the larger part of the equation) are actually astonishingly superficial.

Dr. Romanov makes a critical distinction between movement—the displacement of our body in space (or of another object, such as a ball)—and repositioning (moving arms, hands, legs or shifting our torso around while remaining in the same spot).

Muscles allow us to reposition, sometimes at great speed. But in order to transform repositioning into movement, we need to add another critically important (and almost universally overlooked) component to the recipe: gravity.

Similar to how animal physiology evolved with the assumption that oxygen is a constant, the movement mechanics of all animals evolved with another assumption: that gravity is another constant, which we harness for movement as we harness oxygen for life.

Leonardo Da Vinci wrote: “Motion is created by the destruction of balance.”

What happens when we destroy balance—when we lean juust enough in some direction (say, forwards)? Gravity accelerates us quickly enough that we reflexively throw our foot down to catch ourselves in an attempt to find balance anew. And what if instead of stopping, we let ourselves continue falling? We’ll find that we need to throw down another foot, and another, and another. At that point, we’re running.

All movement begins with the destruction of balance, but there are an innumerable amount of movements that the body can make. The difference between each and every one of them is which position we initiate from.

But how about in throwing? Isn’t it quite clear that we “generate power” from the hips? Let’s see.

We all know the throwing stance: ball in hand at the level of the ear, elbow at ninety degrees and square with the shoulder, back foot pointing to the side and front foot pointed forward. But there’s more. We rotate our shoulders so that they are aligned in the direction of the throw.

quarterback

Our upper body is essentially twisted into a spring, ready to snap back around as soon as we release the potential energy we’ve created.

But in order for this to become a throw, there is one exceptionally important component missing—an action called unweighing. If there’s any shared movement between all sports, this is it. Unweighing is essentially an explosive shoulder shrug—the idea behind it being that initially it’s much easier to reposition a structure like the shoulders (which aren’t weighed down by something on top of them), and then follow in sequence with torso, hips, legs, and feet (which are).

Unweighing happens in a big way in this video of Drew Storen’s pitching mechanics, as well as in just about any video of Usain Bolt.

Once you’ve unweighed, your shoulders are flying. For all intents and purposes, they’re suspended in air. The abdomen isn’t supporting the shoulders anymore. The spine is free to extend, and accelerate the abdomen into the air. Your hips, knees, ankles, and feet are free to move.

Unweighing is the necessary first step to any human movement. While movement is still possible without active unweighing, performance suffers.

But remember, unweighing isn’t the only component: throwing involves a forward step—a momentary loss of balance. With it, gravity gets the perfect opportunity to accelerate our body. The bigger the step, the bigger the acceleration.

“The object which moves most rapidly is farthest from its balance.”

—Leonardo Da Vinci

Movement is in no way “accidental” or “passive” just because gravity is involved: A bigger “fall” in running or throwing means that the appropriate muscles have to contract more quickly in order to negotiate the greater acceleration and help the body travel to another balanced position—a second Pose.

When that foot lands, our leg stops moving abruptly. Milliseconds later, our hips, shoulders, elbow and wrist each come to a stop—and all that kinetic energy gets transferred into the ball, which continues to travel at great speed.

In throwing as in running (as in jumping, punching, and even swimming), every athletic movement is instigated by a loss of balance.

Let’s explicitly state the counterintuitive elegance of Dr. Romanov’s Pose theory: the variety of athletic movements isn’t due to a different “action” or “effort,” but rather that the initial position—the Pose that we lose balance from—and the ending position—the Pose that we travel to in order to regain it—are different.

For any movement, exactly two things happen between Poses: acceleration in some direction due to the force of gravity, and our single voluntary contribution—our only action: an explosive “unweighing” that allows the body to quickly (and reflexively) reposition its parts in its quest to return to balance.

Implicit in Pose theory is this notion: the best way to teach movement isn’t by teaching movement. The way to teach movement is by teaching the initial and ending Pose, teaching how to unweigh, and finally by teaching the conscious mind to let the body do its thing—to get the hell out of its way.

As Bruce Lee once said: “. . .and when there is an opportunity, I don’t hit. It hits, all by itself.”

QUESTION FROM A READER: Why does my heart rate spike at the start of a run?

A lot of people who run with heart rate monitors often see their heart rate spike at the beginning of a run, only to subside after a mile or two. This kind of spike only happens if you didn’t warm up long enough.

  • If the body isn’t warmed up, there is little blood flow to the muscles (and therefore little oxygen).
  • For a short period of time, the muscles have to work anaerobically, increasing the heart rate.
  • The body rushes to shunt blood away from the organs and towards the muscles. This is a major stressor.
  • The spike in heart rate subsides when increased blood flow (and the oxygen that comes with it) allows the muscles to work aerobically.
  • Therefore, the spike itself is an indicator that your heart rate was inadequate.
  • It takes 12-15 minutes for the body to warm up properly.

Before starting a bout of exercise, our body’s internal machinery is largely inactive. The metabolism is working at a very low level, the big muscles are relatively quiet, and blood is moving largely within the core—cycling through the various organs, and back to the heart and lungs.

Muscles are fed by vast networks of capillaries—tiny blood vessels existing within the muscles themselves—which ensure that blood goes to and from every muscle cell. During rest, the majority of these capillaries are constricted. Very little blood goes in or out of the muscles.

This eases the demand on the heart during rest: constriction of the capillaries and peripheral blood vessels means that the overall volume of the cardiovascular system is greatly reduced. The heart doesn’t need to pump very hard to maintain blood pressure, which keeps the heart rate relatively low.

During exercise, muscles demand a huge volume of blood flow, and so the capillaries dilate to accommodate it. But the body isn’t designed in such a way that the capillaries can expand pre-emptively. They expand due to exercise itself. Asking the body is asked to exert itself from a cold start can be a major stressor: it has to drain blood from major organs abruptly and it has to shove them into muscles whose capillaries haven’t dilated yet—a process that can send the body into shock.

Because of this, a proper warm-up—a period of very low-intensity activity—is important for all exercise, but is critical for running: Every step we run, our legs have to break our fall. It takes a big use of the muscles to make this happen.

Without proper blood flow, the muscles are on their own. If the capillary networks haven’t yet expanded, very little blood is getting to the muscles for those first few minutes. This is a problem because blood carries oxygen. No blood, no oxygen. But even without oxygen, the muscles still need to find a way to perform the required activity. In this situation, the only way to accomplish this is by working anaerobically.

I’ve written before how anaerobic work is intricately tied to the stress response: when the body is under stress, it raises the heart rate and kicks up the functioning of the anaerobic system—which is able to provide energy at a massive rate—in order to deal with a presumed threat to its existence. The connection between stress, anaerobic activity, and a high heart rate runs deep: if any of the 3 increases, the other two will follow.

The observed spike in heart rate is a direct indicator of increased anaerobic activity.

It subsides after a mile or two is because it typically takes the aerobic system 12-15 minutes to activate completely. Blood finally pervades the muscles, bringing oxygen and allowing the aerobic muscle fibers to do their thing.

Heart rate drops to a manageable level once the aerobic system is in play—and to the degree that it comes into play.

Here’s the important part: A spike in heart rate doesn’t just tell us that our aerobic system wasn’t fully on yet. It also tells us that our warm-up was inadequate. The spike in anaerobic activity means that blood and oxygen was largely absent from the muscles. The body was forced to rush to bring blood to the muscles. Blood was hastily drained from the organs, and unceremoniously shoved through capillaries that hadn’t yet expanded to accommodate it.

That amounts to a lot of unnecessary stress.

The solution: warm-up for longer.

“Narrowing your life” to reduce injury risk.

A while ago I wrote a popular article on a contentious topic: I posed the question of whether “being a slow runner” was a protective measure against having bad running form—in other words, whether people are artificially lowering their injury risk by semipermanently limiting their athletic horizons.

I wrote this as an answer to the many experiments out there that find no link between incidence of injury and running form (or type of footstrike, etc). An underlying claim of my article is that perhaps the reason that experiments find no connection is that the incidence of injury caused by “bad form” has been artificially reduced by runners slowing down in order to reduce the force dished to their bodies. The implication being, of course, that if they had good form, they would be in a position—literally, an alignment—that would allow their body to correctly, and therefore efficiently, interact with those forces. In that sense, good form may not reduce injury risk itself, but it will create faster runners.

In other words, I think it will reduce injury risk—at a given speed X or given distance Y.

I’ve made no secret of what I believe “good alignment” or “good form” to be.

I bring this topic up again because of a comment made by Gray Cook, movement expert and founder of Functional Movement Systems (FMS), on the topic of exercise, alignment, and injury risk:

“What you’re going to do inherently to manage your injury risk . . . you’re going to find yourself limited, and you’re going to migrate to those abilities that don’t cause you a problem. And you’re going to lower your injury risk by narrowing your life.”

The full video is 9 minutes long, and the quote is from the beginning of minute 8.

Understanding the gears of the human drivetrain: energy systems and some of their training and racing applications.

Not long ago, I read an article from Outside Magazine which mentioned an elite cyclist who eschews heart rate monitoring during training in favor of power meters because “power is objective.” While I like power meters and I think they are an important tool in our (presumably much larger) athletic toolbox, I take issue with this view.

While a power meter tells us exactly how much power the body is putting out, it doesn’t tell us a lot about how the body is arranging for that power to be produced. That’s a problem.

The body has 2 main energy systems, both of which are used in varying amounts during a bout of activity: a capability to create energy by breaking down glucose, or sugar (call this “LO gear”—producing the low-end torque needed for power and acceleration) and a capability to create energy from lipids, or fat (call this “HI gear”—producing the high-end torque necessary for endurance). LO and HI gear can be subdivided into more energy systems—ATP-PC, anaerobic glycolysis, glucose oxidation, fat oxidation, and ketosis—but I believe that the beginner (particularly the beginner distance runner) should first master the distinction between fat and sugar usage, and how to apply it concretely to training and racing.

As I’ve discussed before, our heart rate is hardwired to our stress levels (a.k.a. the intensity at which our body is operating or expects to operate), and therefore to whether we are breaking down sugar or breaking down fats—in other words, which gear we are using at any given time.

The higher our heart rate, the more we are using the LO gear necessary to produce lots of power. The lower our heart rate, the more we are utilizing the HI gear necessary to sustain activity for protracted periods of time.

This doesn’t mean that we are burning the most fats when our heart rate is lowest—it just means that the greatest percentage of our energy comes from fats. By increasing our heart rate from its lowest point, we increase the amount of fats burned until the requirements of the task (as reflected by the heart rate) are high enough that a threshold is crossed—and the body is forced to switch to sugar in order to produce the necessary power.

(My favorite way of estimating at which point your body is most likely to switch from HI gear to LO gear is Phil Maffetone’s 180-Formula.)

Consequently, the problem with the power meter is that it doesn’t tell you whether the body is getting this energy from LO or from HI. The issue is simple—and it’s the very same one you would have if you’ve ever tried to go on a long roadtrip with a car that doesn’t shift up above second gear: you’re going to run out of fuel, blow the engine, or both.

During a marathon, just like during a road trip, your success depends on how well you’ve developed HI gear. Nobody argues that power (from LO gear) is incredibly important in a marathon—I often quote Owen Anderson, author of Running Science, who (in my opinion) famously said that “the marathon is a power race.” But the ability for you to get to the finish line (which is a precursor to racing to the finish line) is predicated on how well you developed HI gear.

“Hitting the wall” is a ubiquitous experience in the running community. I myself have hit the wall a dozen times. It’s almost a rite of passage—the badge of a “true” endurance athlete. It also means that muscle glycogen (a.k.a sugar) was depleted too soon: the runner was utilizing LO gear too much, and ate through all its fuel.

(HI gear—“fat-burning,” loosely speaking—draws from a massive fuel source. A 150 lb marathoner with 12% body fat has some 45,000 calories in the tank. LO gear has perhaps 2,000.)

Supposing that 60% of entrants at any given marathon are hitting the wall—although it wouldn’t surprise me if the real percentage was far higher—there is an epidemic of runners who despite their best intentions and best efforts, either (1) have not developed HI gear well enough, or (2) do not understand how to pace themselves in order to use just enough LO gear to go fast but not enough that they bonk at the halfway mark.

How do we factor this into training?

Let’s use the most classic bit of marathon training as an example: the long run. Since the marathon is a HI gear, fat-burning race, then we have to make sure that our long run is being fueled primarily by HI gear.

Suppose that some runner X has enough glycogen stores to fuel LO gear for 14 miles. If she’s been using LO gear to fuel the majority of her efforts up to the 14 mile mark, then she hasn’t really used HI gear to run even 1 mile.

This marathoner doesn’t really have a robust, well-developed HI gear to switch to. For her, a 14 mile run and a 16 mile run are extremely different experiences. The 14 mile run can be performed well with a powerful LO gear, but as soon as she bumps the distance up to 16 miles or more, her speed will drop dramatically—particularly towards the later miles.

(Marathon pace for the elite runner is only a few seconds per mile slower than half-marathon pace. In contrast, marathon pace for the recreational runner may be a third slower than half-marathon pace).

The problem isn’t that she hasn’t trained the mileage itself, but rather that the energy system that is supposed to handle high volumes of mileage was never really developed—so when she bumps up to a mileage that requires that fat-burning energy system, she grossly underperforms relative to her expectations.

Considering how many marathoners hit the wall, I believe that most of us don’t train HI gear on most of our long runs. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t train LO gear or run long and fast in preparation for a marathon. It means that we need a reason for doing so—and we need to know when we’re crossing the threshold. Power meters aren’t enough. We need heart rate monitors: we need a window into what’s happening inside our body in real time.

New to fitness? Start with some human-specific training.

Most of you reading this have probably been exposed to the terms “training specificity” or “sports-specific training.” This means that training shouldn’t be random—it should always intend to bolster some specific aspect of athletic performance.

But a lot of people at the gym or jogging on the street—or even purportedly training for some athletic event (I’m talking to my 20-year self here)—are far from anything resembling sports-specific training. When you look at the structure of their training, you’ll find no rhyme or reason for it other than it being some canned and mass-produced (and watered-down) version the training program for some or another elite athlete . . . if that.

Recreational runners aren’t mini-elites. In terms of exercise prescription, they’re a different animal altogether. Their training doesn’t account for their poor aerobic base, or that pelvic floor dysfunction, or that knee valgus collapse.

Deep underlying problems are left unaddressed (and alternately, great strengths are being passed over).

I see this all the time: just about every basic running training program that I see (with some notable exceptions such as The Pose Method) gives you a particular combination of easy runs, intervals, long runs, and strength training. Where’s the mobility component? Where’s the stability training? Where’s the skill development?

You could say that these programs don’t include stability, mobility and skill development because they aren’t aware of the client’s capabilities—but they aren’t aware of the state of their aerobic base either (or any muscle imbalances that could injure the body during power training, for that matter).

The fact that just about every running training program (for beginners!) neglects these basic components, while these same components form the foundation and daily warm-up session for competitive athletes is nothing short of criminal.

I believe that this double standard is a big contributor to making beginners stay beginners (and the competitive stay competitive).

My frustration with this topic stems from mistakes that I’ve made in my own training—and frustration with the fact that nobody ever took me aside and told me “hey dude, this is the first and most important thing you should know.” I had to go looking for this stuff because I realized that my workouts were missing a basic logic.

Which brings us to the question: So what comes first?

Let’s take it from Gray Cook, movement expert and founder of Functional Movement Systems (FMS): “We need to do mobility first because that’s the way we got here. We didn’t show up doing side planks in the crib. We had mobility.”

In order to be truly effective, any basic training program for general fitness has to hit all of the following steps—but especially the first (read: foundational) ones in a basic, general way.

  1. Mobility
  2. Stability
  3. Skill
  4. Strength
  5. Power
  6. Endurance

The differences between these may seem too subtle to matter, but subtlety has always been the province of success.

Each of these steps is going to get its own post. Understanding these steps isn’t just in describing what endurance or strength means, or how to go about training mobility or stability, but why skill comes before strength, or endurance after power.

For a hint of this, look at Gray Cook’s words: it doesn’t just happen to be a good idea for mobility to be the first thing we train (or the first component of our warm-up). That’s how it works because that’s the sequence in which we develop lifelong movement competence as humans.

As you’ll see in future posts, the implications are deep, and they reach across the different perspectives from which we can understand the body—temporal (developmental), metabolic, neurological, mechanical, etc.

These issues don’t just make for interesting discussions. These symmetries, processes, and logics (and how well we attend to them and understand them) often account for the difference between silver and gold.

Getting to the root of fitness issues: are we doing it right?

It’s a sad business, the way we treat fitness. We well-meaning enthusiasts chide those who’d rather stay on the couch, and tell them they’d be so much better off if they just go for a run. We’ve been taken in by “no pain, no gain” philosophy. We believe that it’s a matter of willpower, because hey, going out for a run is pretty tough.

And we did it ourselves.

But have we really thought about why someone else may still be sitting on that couch?

Let me present you with a possibility, best explained with a metaphor. Suppose that you go free climbing with a friend that’s much better than you. You get to the first pitch and just by eye-balling it, you know you can’t do it—or at least that you’d be much better off in a harness.

I submit to you that a very similar calculation is going on in the head of that person we’ve so dismissively labeled as lazy: faced with the prospect of a two-mile run—that’s just 15 minutes of running!—their brain analyzes their body’s motor and endurance capabilities, but has no words or protracted arguments to explain this calculation. So it acts in the only way it can, in the same way your brain acted faced with that rock wall: it speaks to their subconscious.

And how does this manifest? Your friend the couch potato becomes daunted, queasy, unsure, and discouraged.

This happened for a reason. Professor Tim Noakes, who I believe is a proponent of a solid 30% of today’s sensible nutrition, lifestyle, and exercise prescription ideas, proposed the central governor theory. The central governor is a predictive mechanism in the brain that analyzes the body’s athletic capabilities with regards to the expected performance requirements of the athletic event, in order to produce an optimum output—one which ensures that the event is completed, that the best performance is produced, and that the body is in a condition to perform again.

Your friend’s brain did this very calculation, and gave their subconscious the thumbs-down.

Guilt-tripping them into your chosen activity is doing them a disservice. Through sheer luck they might not get injured, and through even better luck they don’t completely hate running afterwards. But in terms of their health and bodily integrity, you effectively cornered them into rolling the dice.

So what? What now? We’re supposed to just let them sit on the couch for the rest of their life?

No. Absolutely not. Everyone should have a peer or mentor to pull them out of their comfort zone and propel them towards excellence in areas of life they couldn’t have believed possible. Just not that way.

The mentor or coach has to be wiser. They have to be willing to ask the question: Why?

They have to be willing to ask it again and again and again.

This reminds me of that show by Louis C.K., when he describes how his daughter just bombards him with questions that quickly veer towards the existential, until he explodes in frustration. Well, all respect to Mr. C.K.’s reaction, I believe that at the end of that long and agonizing chain of “why’s” is the answer to why someone is still on the couch while you and I have long since gotten up.

And here’s a clue: it wasn’t laziness. When you refuse to stop there, and ask “why” yet again, you’ll find an answer, if you look really hard. And if you’d looked really hard at your friend, you might have seen a frozen right gluteus medius, or a pair of shortened psoas that turns their hips into an unmoving mass of muscle instead of the well-oiled differential you were expecting.

Unfreeze that right gluteus medius. Help them lengthen those psoas. You might just see that their inexplicable reticence vanishes overnight.

My reflection on The Pose Method’s principles and processes.

The supermajority of runners—of people in general—are fond of saying that there is no one way to run. We accept that there are specific techniques for swimming, throwing a ball, swinging a golf club, doing a spin kick, squatting a barbell, and even for properly flipping a goddamn omelet. We accept that adhering to these techniques will make us better at the motion, and less likely to be injured.

(I’ll bet you a hundred bucks that you’ll get carpal tunnel if you flip an omelet wrong one time too many).

But this doesn’t apply to running. When it comes to running, everyone’s different.

Or so they say.

Dr. Nicholas Romanov, founder of The Pose Method, disagrees. After extensive study and experimentation, he identified the key similarities between everyone’s running style. In order for us to be able to run—to move forward consistently without falling—we have to alternate support: one leg remains on the ground, allowing the body to fall forward (instead of downward), while the other moves through the air to create new support under the body’s new location.

The biggest similarity between everyone’s form, whether we’re talking about a couch potato with a New Year’s resolution or about Usain Bolt, is this: at some moment in time, one foot will be supporting the body on the ground, while the other will be passing under the hip area (which is known in biomechanics as the general center of mass, or GCM).

This is what Dr. Romanov refers to as “pose.” How to achieve pose properly is the centerpiece of his method.

Consequently, the most important difference between that couch potato and Bolt—but not the only difference, of course—is that Bolt takes far greater advantage of the time spent in pose.

When we look at Usain Bolt’s running, we recreational runners and non-athletes get the sense that we are looking at genius. We may not be able to put our finger on this genius or break it down with precise words, but we recognize it as genius nevertheless.

But what we are really seeing in Bolt is a perfect running pose—a masterful, yet unconscious (and possibly unknowing) execution of the principles laid out by The Pose Method.

The Pose Method isn’t a “running style.” Dr. Romanov emphasizes this heavily—he didn’t “invent” the running pose any more than the squat and the snatch were invented. These weightlifting forms were discovered: the squat is the best way to lift weight on the shoulders, and the snatch is the best way to propel weight vertically from the ground. The running pose is also a discovery: it is the best way to harness the force of gravity to create horizontal displacement of the upright human body.

The method part of the name refers to a recipe built around the simplest, most efficient exercises that can help us replicate pose effectively and consistently across distance and time.

To truly understand The Pose Method, it’s critical to grasp the role that gravity plays in running. On the surface, it seems that gravity has little benefit beyond helping us return to the ground so that we can once again propel ourselves forward. Gravity is a downforce. We all know this. So how, then, can it help us move horizontally?

Because of the support phase, that is, the running pose itself. When one foot is on the ground, and we shift our center of gravity even slightly forward of that foot, we begin to fall. But we can look at it in a different way: falling forward is really a rotation, at least at first. When we run, the support foot acts as the vertex of an angle between our hips and the direction of gravity. When we’re perfectly upright, that angle is zero. As we shift our weight forward, that angle increases: our hips (along with the rest of our upper body) travel forward, while our support foot remains behind.

Effectively, we’ve converted the downward force of gravity into a rotational force. The greater the angle, the greater the force.

Of course, if we just keep increasing that angle without doing anything else, we’ll fall on our face. But we don’t—our body has all the necessary countermeasures in place: they’re called reflexes. In order to catch ourselves, we reach towards the ground with the other foot.

Ideally, that foot should land directly under the center of mass. This is the case, at least, in Usain Bolt’s running (and that of a few other luminaries, such as Galen Rupp). In most of us, the foot lands somewhere else.

If our foot lands in front of us, momentum has to carry our center of mass forward, until arrives on top of the foot. Only then can we begin to use gravity to advance. And if it takes too long for our heel to lift, we are not falling forward in the earnest—heel lift is a critical component of any athletic movement. That’s why it is so emphasized across sports.

To the degree that our foot lands ahead of us, we are wasting time. And to the degree that our heel delays from lifting, we are losing power.

In order to prevent each of these two issues, the swing leg (which is off the ground) must remain under the center of mass for the entire time that the weight of the body is supported by the other leg. While one forefoot is on the ground, the other foot must remain under the hips.

The array of injuries and problems with the running of most runners are caused by deviations from pose. When we see a master runner—when we recognize genius—we are unconsciously recognizing that these few conditions are being properly satisfied. All other nuances of form are by-products of these few facts.

Dr. Romanov likes to say that we all run in pose. Regardless of our race, creed, gender, or ethnicity, we’ve all gone through this position every step of every run we’ve ever run. What differs between runners is whether we achieve pose—and retain it—effectively.

Whether there is a proper way to run is not a question. Whether there is a way to find it is not a question. The only real question is whether we hold to old, absurd paradigms—that running is the only sport where there is no One Right Way—or whether we engage our time and efforts in mastering principles which have already been discovered and already been presented as the core teachings of The Pose Method of running.

Reflections on the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) Seminar

Last weekend I attended the Functional Movement Screen (FMS) Level 1 and 2 seminar in San Diego, California.

I’m always looking for ways to simplify the process of correcting the gait of runners that I work with. The FMS is an extremely easy tool to use, and the corrective exercises that I learned are aggressively effective.

But before I go into all that, let me back up and discuss what the FMS is all about. The FMS started when Gray Cook and Lee Burton realized that mainstream kinesiology and physical therapy wasn’t helping a majority of people recover completely: even though injury and physical dysfunction were being rehabbed properly, very little was done to regain proper movement.

As Gray Cook likes to say, “mobility does not equate with movement.”

In other words, it is not enough to simply have active range of motion (ROM) for a particular joint in order to be able to use that ROM in an activity. While the mobility might be there, the body has to understand how to apply that mobility to a global movement pattern.

The FMS has established a baseline for competency and dysfunction of movement, and based on that baseline, has developed a corrective method to bring the body towards proper movement.

Of course, proper movement does not equate with peak performance. But proper movement is necessary to allow the body to tolerate an increased training volume, and to have an efficient training response. Training, then, must be done when there is already correct movement.

As a runner, this is humbling for me. I have a pretty good gait, and although specialists will point out power leaks here and there, the FMS shed light on just how problematic my movement is, and did so in a meaningful way. It’s not just a matter of stretching the glute med or working on the piriformis any more—that’s not how the body understands the musculoskeletal system. It understand that system through movement and gait.

The FMS speaks the language of the body, and seems to speak it well.

Already, within only a week of working on my weakest links, I have increased trunk flexion and extension capacity, and much, much better mobility in my hips and legs.

I look at the majority of runners, who enthusiastically classify themselves as “injury-prone,” or “overpronators.” But if you think about it, there’s very few runners that are “true” overpronators—very few out there who have shoulder, hip, and knee aligned in the saggital plane and still overpronate. Overpronation is born from a movement dysfunction (which of course, may have roots in musculoskeletal dysfunction).

Running is a contact sport. Think about how many times you contact the ground during a marathon. We runners need movement quality prior to training quantity to negotiate those contacts correctly.