Category Archives: Thinking in Systems

Is “being slow” a protective measure for runners with bad form?

We runners—and the scientists that study running—cannot seem to get away from talking about form. Across all sports, we have discussions about “good” or “bad” form. In running we don’t: we argue that all runners are different—that somehow, in running we are all unique. In principle, I think this is a little odd: when we’re trained correctly we all swim alike, golf alike, punch alike, but not run alike?

Maybe there is no right way. Maybe there is.

In recent posts I’ve made the argument that, for all sports, “good form” means “the musculoskeletal configuration that can produce the greatest power output.” I believe that we should adopt the same standard for running. I believe that if we don’t, we are depriving people of the guidance they need to achieve their athletic potential.

There are several reasons for this. As I discussed in earlier posts, the first and most important reason is because across sports (whether they be power or endurance sports), the winner is the one who can generate the most power—technically, who can produce the most work (or energy) in the shortest amount of time. This is obvious in track and field sports, but it holds even for the ultramarathon: the best ultramarathoner is ultimately the one who converted more energy into forward motion in the shortest amount of time.

But there are deeper reasons: For example, a reduction in power output—running slower, that is—can be a protective measure.

The brain has excellent muscular inhibition capabilities. In a well-known lecture, Gray Cook eloquently describes how, when certain shoulder problems exist, the brain reduces the body’s grip strength if and only if the hand rises above the shoulder. When the brain detects that there’s a problem, it inhibits muscular activation that would allow for a behavior that could result in damage: gripping something heavy above the shoulder level is dangerous with an unstable shoulder, and so the brain disallows it.

Running, an activity in which the body incurs an astounding amount of shock and load, should follow the same pattern: if there is an important mechanical or neuromuscular pathology, the brain will limit the energy available to power the running gait.

Yassine Diboun, one of the heroes representing the US in the 2015 IAU Trail Championships. (This is NOT a slow runner).

Suppose that someone toes the starting line on a marathon (or a 5k, for that matter) with unstable hips, dumb glutes or abdominal muscles that don’t know how to stabilize the spine in relation to a pelvis (and lower extremities) that are going to be contralaterally loaded with up to three bodyweights per stride. In that situation, it is completely reasonable for the brain to execute a similar calculation to the one that Cook describes in the abovementioned video. However, instead of reducing the power output available to the hand and forearm muscles, the brain inhibits muscles related to gait (whether they be the weak muscles themselves or other muscles up or down the kinetic chain).

Either way, those muscle imbalances are reducing power output, effectively producing a “slow runner.”

But lets think of the implications of this: How many runners are protecting themselves from injury by being slow?

Let’s put this question in a more compelling format: how many runners with a high risk for injury are remaining untreated (meaning that their athletic development is being compromised) because they have been conveniently categorized as “slow runners”?

We shouldn’t just say that the correct running form is what “feels right”: suppose that a golfer has poor sensation in their external and internal obliques. Would the proper golf swing “feel right” for them? Absolutely not! That golfer must go to a health specialist to integrate those muscles functionally into the rest of the body. Then, that musculature must be trained to produce the golfing swing that can generate the most power.

Similarly, establishing the “correct” running form as the one that allows people to produce a greater power output allows us to guide people towards greater athletic performance.

But there’s more: remember that inhibitory reductions in power output are a protective measure. This means that the process of “running the right way” will center around eliminating neurological, muscular, and skeletal imbalances and their resulting gait pathologies. That way, all protective reductions in athletic output will be minimized. More people will be fast, and they’ll be fast because they’re less likely to be injured.

Shifting the burden, recovery techniques, and systems thinking.

The mainstream of sports therapy and recovery is catching on to the idea that a lot of the most common techniques are actually shifting the burden systems.

Shifting the burden systems are systems that get created when there is a problem that has certain symptoms. Because it’s often easier or simpler to mitigate the symptoms than to address the fundamental solution that takes care of the problem, the symptoms get mitigated while the problem continues to grow (and becomes harder and harder to solve).

Icing, stretching, and using foam rollers are three great examples of shifting the burden systems. While icing can help reduce swelling, it often damages the surrounding tissue, causing even longer delays in recovery. Stretching, while helping muscle soreness, causes muscles and tendons to become elongated, breaking the patterns of structural tension in the body. Using foam rollers, as a recent article suggests, mitigates the pain caused by muscle imbalances (which allows the imbalance to grow until it becomes debilitating).

In other words, all of these systems share the same characteristics: they create “quick-fixes” that seem to solve the problem, while actually the problem continues to grow.

Systems thinking lets us take these three examples and find the underlying similarity between them. When a therapy, recovery, or growth solution seems to work extremely quickly, it is important to lead with the following question: “Am I looking at a shifting the burden system?” Most often, when something works extremely quickly, it is just the symptoms that are being resolved. The hidden problem keeps growing and growing, until damage to the system—the inevitable sports injury—“comes out of nowhere.”

As athletes, we all have to keep a lookout for shifting the burden systems. Did we get too tired, and shift the burden of pushing off from our gluteus maximus to our gastrocnemius and soleus (in our calves)? Did we get injured in our non-dominant leg abductors, and shift the burden of supporting the body to our dominant leg adductors?

These are all examples of compensation patterns. While they may work in the short-term, but ultimately hinder our ability to develop and perform athletically.

Furthermore, it’s important for us athletes to realize that once we have defined what a shifting the burden system is, we don’t have to study every new therapy, recovery, and exercise technique and impartially judging its merits.

For example, a recent article initially referenced by the Gait Guys suggested that a possible treatment for hip pain/reduced hip mobility would be to coach patients into pushing off with their gastrocnemius (calf) muscle. Thanks to systems thinking, we don’t need to look further than this short mention to know that this is a shifting the burden system. The main drivers of the body’s athletic expression are the hip muscles and the thigh muscles. They are the ones that should be pushing off, period (as the Gait Guys sensibly mention). Shifting the burden of pushoff from the hip muscles to the calf muscles will address the symptoms (hip pain) while reducing the need for the hip muscles to remain strong. The hip muscles will weaken over time, and their suceptibility for injury will increase. Classic shifting the burden system.

This is what systems thinking lets us do: extrapolate cleanly and freely from one system to the next. What works in one economy will work similarly in another, because they are the same kind of system. When we restrict the body’s inputs (by dieting), the body will respond like any other economy: it will shrink, beginning by cutting back on infrastructure. Just like economies respond to a policy of austerity by cutting back on public infrastructure, education, and health, the body starts cannibalizing bone and muscle, and starts winding down the functioning of non-essential organs.

Restricting inputs of energy (food, resources, money) does the same to every economy, no matter what economy you’re talking about.

We athletes should become well-versed in systems thinking, to develop a deeper and more intuitive understanding of the forces that shape our athletic expression, and athletic development.

The underlying similarities between seemingly different things should become obvious to us. Rather, it behooves us to look beyond superficial differences in everyday things to understand the underlying patterns and the systems beneath those patterns. That’s what this blog is for.

The human body is an athletic machine.

A growing body of evidence is telling us that exercise is one of the most important ways to prevent all sorts of chronic diseases. This list includes (but is not limited to) various cancers, diabetes, clinical depression, and osteoporosis.

Although we could just leave it at that, and say “exercise if you’re chronically ill,” we can take this evidence a little bit further: it tells us something very important about the relationship between exercise and the human body.

What chronic diseases mean for the body is that our systems aren’t resilient: the very same problem springs up again and again, and our body has los the capacity to change that. Because by exercising, we can reduce the risk for these diseases, this tells us something about the optimum state of the body: when we don’t exercise, our risk of chronic disease begins climbing. When we don’t exercise, our bodies stop being resilient. This means that the body’s resilient state is one in which it’s constantly exercising.

There is another growing body of evidence that suggests that cognitive flexibility and neurogenesis (the creation of neurons and neural pathways) increases during exercise. This means that, both physiologically and psychologically, exercise increases the body’s capacity to deal with new, novel, and unexpected stresses. Simply stated, exercise helps the brain and the body meet the demands of the world on the world’s own terms.

Thanks to this evidence, we can infer something about the body: if the human body and human mind’s resilient state corresponds to a state of constant activity and exercise, then the body isn’t meant to be passive, at rest, and unchallenged. The human body’s baseline state is one of exercise—one where it’s being constantly challenged physically, physiologically, and mentally.

In other words, the human body is an athletic machine.

This conclusion tells us something very interesting: the prototypical western, sedentary human doesn’t reflect the optimum state of the human body. And to snuff out a possible counterargument before it arises: we haven’t “evolved” out of the athletic roots that were so important in our early history and prehistory. Socially, we may be an entirely different animal (although many, myself included, would argue against that—we are as reactive, addictive, violent, aloof, and oppressive as ever). But physiologically and psychologically, we’re basically the same. If we had in fact evolved beyond those athletic roots, exercise would have no causal relationship whatsoever to chronic disease.

Which in turn opens up a very interesting line of inquiry: the pool of subjects used when we move new cures and treatment methods into human testing is highly skewed: we test these methods and cures on a population that, while ostensibly representative of the western, sedentary human, is not representative of the ideal—i.e. resilient—state of the human biological and psychological system.

What this basically does—and has done—is to get us into a mindset where prevention doesn’t exist, and cure is the only option. In systemic terms, prevention means increasing the resiliency of the system. Once that system is resilient beyond a certain threshold, there still may be some ailments that need curing. But when the prospect of increasing resilience is completely off the table—or worse, marketed as an “alternative,” and not as the necessary first step towards a solution—everything needs curing.

The “heel-striking” running gait doesn’t observe the requirements of the human body’s mechanical paradigm.

Those who say that the midfoot strike is the “ideal” running stride often conclude that midfoot striking is “better” for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is that, allegedly, the midfoot strike is more “natural” than the rearfoot-strike (also known as the heel-strike).

It’s a bad idea to call the midfoot strike more “natural”—aside from the fact that the allegation is wrong: humans use a variety of different footstrikes for a variety of different activities. Rearfoot striking ahead of the center of gravity is the default walking strike. Rearfoot striking is also used to abruptly halt forwards momentum, and sometimes, to turn by using the heel bone as a pivot. Conversely humans use a very anterior (forefoot) strike during the acceleration phase of sprinting.

In short, the problem with this “natural” argument is that human feet strike the ground all over the foot map.

So stop calling it natural.

Which is why I prefer to adopt a more technical term: paradigmatic function. This term means that a certain function X is more in line with a particular structure, or a particular configuration of a structure.

For example, variable-geometry aircraft—those which have the ability to “sweep” the wings back from an extended position to create a triangular shape (such as the F-14 Tomcat)—use the swept-back configuration for combat and supersonic flight, while they use the extended (regular) position for takeoff and landing. For the F-14 Tomcat, the paradigmatic function of the extended configuration is takeoff and landing, whereas the paradigmatic function of the swept-back configuration is combat and supersonic flight.


Although it is no doubt possible for the F-14 to land with the wings swept back and enter combat with the wings extended, there are two things to consider: (1) each configuration works better for each activity, meaning that (2) each configuration “solves” a different problem: the swept-back configuration allows for greater maneuverability and speed, while the extended configuration allows for greater stability and reduced speed during landing.

Central to systems thinking is the idea that every system (or configuration of a system) is built to solve a particular problem. For example, a system with a branching structure, like a tree, a lung, or a network of roads, solves the problem of getting the maximum amount of energy or nutrients to and from various places with the least amount of effort. The shapes of systems always correspond to the most parsimonious way to solve a particular problem. In a very real way, you can think of all systems—and each individual configuration of those systems—as solving a problem that is specific to each system or configuration.

The very same goes for walking and running, the two important gaits—the two functional configurations—of the human body.

Although it would seem easy to say that these two functional configurations are “walking” and “running,” it’s better to get at this conclusion in a more roundabout way:

In terms of the stresses absorbed by the body, the most important difference between walking and running is that in running, there is a flight phase, while in walking, there isn’t. This means that one of the things that the body needs to do while running is absorb the shock of landing, while in walking, this particular need is largely absent.

This theory is largely borne out by looking at the muscles used during walking: the largest muscles in the body—the gluteus maximus, the psoas major, and the hamstrings—are largely inactive.

Because of this, the knees remain locked during the walking gait. This means that by walking, the body “solves” the problem of preserving energy while remaining in motion; that’s what the walking configuration is for.

Because a necessary component of running gait is the absorption of shock, the landing portion of the running stride should incorporate a shock-absorbing motion. So, in order to figure out what kind of motion comprises the landing portion of the running stride, let’s review what a “purely” shock absorbing motion looks like: landing from a jump.

When we land from a jump, our hip and leg mechanism works largely like a shock-absorber: we land on our midfoot or our forefoot, and all the joints of the lower extremity go from a lot of extension to a lot of flexion in less then a second, meaning that the hip, knee, and ankle all flex together. (This is known as triple flexion). This means that the paradigmatic function that the body uses to absorb shock is triple flexion. Similarly, in order to jump again, the body extends the hip, the knee, and the ankle simultaneously (which is known as triple extension).


In order to create triple flexion and triple extension, the body must recruit the largest muscles of the body, including the hamstrings, gluteus maximus, psoas major, and quadriceps. In other words, the triple flexion/extension configuration solves a very different problem than the one solved by walking: it allows the body to safely absorb the energy of impact, while powerfully exerting force against the ground.

Because running necessarily has a shock-absorption component and a takeoff component (because of flight time), it stands to reason that, during running, triple flexion and triple extension should form an integral component of the contact and pushoff phases (respectively).

This is where it gets problematic. The typical heel-strike (overstriding with initial rearfoot contact) plays out very differently from triple flexion: as the foot strikes the ground, the knee is mostly locked but the leg is stretched out in front and the foot is raised. The hip is in flexion, the knee in extension, and the ankle in flexion. This means that the shock absorption capabilities of the leg are reduced—and because the leg flexes less, it has a lower capacity for pushoff.


(The lower achilles tendon loading of heel striking as compared to forefoot striking may attest to this).

I’ll leave the issue of heel-striking under the center of gravity for another post. For a taste of why it might be problematic, try jumping up and down in the same spot while landing on your heels. It’s extremely difficult.

In contrast, the midfoot/forefoot strike is a great example of the triple flexion/triple extension principle at work: When you land on your midfoot, your leg compresses like an accordion: the ankle, knee, and hip create a zig-zag shape, which straightens as you push off. Midfoot striking adheres strongly to the musculoskeletal configuration used for shock absorption/propulsion movements.


In my opinion, the best way to know if you “are” a heel-striker in some essential sort of way is to jump up and down, and to see if it is easier for you to absorb shock by landing on your heels than by landing on your midfoot or forefoot. (Unlikely). If that isn’t the case, and yet you heel-strike while running, it might be time to look at muscular imbalances and power leaks, particularly in regards to muscular interactions at the hip area (illiopsoas, lower back extensors, gluteus maximus, quadriceps, and hamstring).

And then, embark on the long road of responsibly changing your gait.

An analysis of the paradigmatic features of midfoot-striking and heel-striking.

The term “heel-striking” shouldn’t just refer to which part of the foot hits the ground first. Even in the common parlance, it should refer to the collection of neuromuscular gait features across the body that contribute to a type of overstriding in which the heel lands first, ahead of the center of gravity.

When I write the words “heel-striking,” this is invariably what I mean.

This way, we can neatly sidestep the conversation of whether someone landed on their heel under their center of gravity, or only “appears” to heel-strike. Let’s do away with reductionist analyses: let’s make it about something else than just “the strike.” The most widespread way in which the western runner overstrides is by heel-striking.

In a previous post, I reviewed how there is a paradigmatic body geometry to midfoot-striking, which corresponds to a paradigmatic pattern of muscle use. Heel-striking is no different.

When I say “paradigmatic,” I refer to the core components of the stride; to its most generalizable features. For example, the paradigmatic body geometry of midfoot-striking consists of a full-body arch, which begins at the base of the head and ends at the heel.

Establishing the paradigmatic features of types of running strides allows us to observe those features and make reasonable predictions about them. If you look at a runner who appears to be heel-striking, and yet is creating a full-body arch starting from the base of the head and ending at the pushoff heel, you can be reasonably certain that if you look closer, you will actually find this runner to be midfoot-striking. In other words, you can know that Meb Keflezighi’s apparent heel-strike (left), is actually a “proprioceptive heel-strike”—rather, a “disguised” midfoot-strike—just by looking at the continuous arch made by his leg and back at pushoff. (This video makes my point rather well). You may notice that other noted forefoot-strikers create very similar arches:

elite arches m

Because every person has a slightly different body geometry, the specifics of their stride will be slightly different. But these specifics are much more similar to each other than it is usually claimed. For example, in the post previously mentioned I reviewed how, necessarily, for all humans, dynamic strength is necessarily achieved by creating a series of consistent and symmetrical arches with the body’s bone structure. The reason this applies to all humans is because it applies to all structures. The integrity of every possible structure—from the Hagia Sophia to the plantar vault—is subject to the symmetry and consistency of its arches.

From this idea, we can extrapolate that no human can be the strongest version of themselves without creating the most consistent and symmetric arches across the body. Therefore, when you look at the differences betwen midfoot-striking and heel-striking, the differences in body geometry stand out starkly: unlike midfoot-striking, heel-striking paradigmatically breaks the full-body arch that makes the midfoot-striking body so resilient.

There may be a few runners out there for whom a true heel-strike doesn’t break this full-body arch. There may even be others who can land on their heels, under the center of gravity, without breaking this arch. But paradigmatically, the stride difference between forefoot-strikers (left) and heel-strikers (right) looks like this:


As mentioned before, a paradigmatic body geometry corresponds to a particular pattern of muscle use. In the above graphic, you can observe major differences between midfoot-striking and heel-striking in the neuromuscular paradigm of both the extensor muscles used during pushoff (red) and the flexor muscles used during the swing phase (blue). Of course these two types of body geometry load different tissues in different ways. That’s the point.

The most important differences are (1) the reduced iliopsoas function for the heel-striker (depicted by a grayed out X at the hip), (2) the reduced function of the upper back extensors (grayed-out X at the back), and the concentric activation of the quadriceps muscle for the heel-striker (blue arrow at the thigh).

The heel-strikers’s upper leg is in a bit of a predicament: during the swing phase, both the quadriceps (front thigh muscle, blue), and the hamstring (back thigh muscle, blue) are active at the same time. This is a problem because, when the leg is forwards of the hip, the hamstring flexes the knee, while the quadriceps extends it. This means that two muscles of the body which perform opposite functions are active at the same time, pulling in opposite directions. And this is happening as the leg is nearing the ground—during the landing phase—which means that two of the major muscles of the body are fighting each other, and they are doing so at the very moment that the body is about to slam into the ground.

This isn’t a problem for the midfoot-striker: the fact that the front knee is bent, and near the height of the hips, means that the quadriceps is largely inactive at that stage. Full quadriceps activation only occurs towards the end of the pushoff phase (front thigh muscle, red).

Because athletic power is generated through the creation of consistent and symmetric arches, any running body will always be the most powerful version of itself as a midfoot-striker. Furthermore, the body is designed around these principles: because load-bearing structure (the arch) is most consistent when the body is powerfully midfoot-striking, the body is at the peak of structural resilience when midfoot striking. Given that resilience is a hallmark of systemic integrity, this means that a systemic analysis of the body can only basically conclude that the human biomechanical system is operating at its “peak” when it is midfoot striking.

Similarly to the heel-strike, the midfoot-strike doesn’t refer to the part of the foot that hits the ground first. It refers to the constellation of stride components (such as the creation of a full body arch), that allows this part of the foot to hit the ground first.

This post shouldn’t be construed to mean that we should ONLY midfoot-strike. There may be plenty of reasons to heel-strike, such as rapid deceleration, and the opportunity to use the heel bone as a swivel, in order to turn quickly. However, for the purpose of producing safe and sustained forward motion, no type of stride will yield results that are as consistent or as powerful as those allowed by the midfoot-strike.

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.

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.

Wearable tech stops us from listening to our bodies. That’s a problem.

We seem to have an ingrained cultural notion that technology solves everything. Got a problem? Throw some tech at it. Is that problem still there—or did it get worse? That’s okay. Some more tech should do the trick. This is what the wearable tech corporations like FitBit have been telling us. Wear a wristband that tracks the amount of steps you’ve taken, or the calories you’ve consumed, and that’ll make you fitter. Which launches us into a serious dilemma: we begin to think that we have control of our fitness like we have control of our thermostat.

Just change the little number and the temperature will change. The little number says how fit we are. But the body is a complex system, and as such, it is hostile to our attempts at simplification. If we try to “describe” fitness in such a simplistic way, we will find again and again that we are becoming overtrained and injured. As Albert Einstein said:

“Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.”

That is exactly the claim that wearable tech purports to let us make: that we “know” how fit we are because the little digital monitor says so. We can say “this is our fitness”—a claim about knowledge (or even worse “this is fitness”—a claim about truth). And our bodies, and our fitness, will be shipwrecked accordingly. The gods will be laughing at our disdain of the fact that the body is a dynamic system.

Continue reading Wearable tech stops us from listening to our bodies. That’s a problem.

The Tales of Forgotten Subsystems, Part II: The “Central Governor.”

Exercise is one of the biggest challenges to the continuous functioning of our body—also known as homeostasis. When we exercise, we wear down tissues, spend calories, consume nutrients, and basically threaten the integrity of our bodies. That’s not a problem: the human body has been designed and built by the creative errors of evolution to be a high-performance athletic machine. And this machine comes with a regulatory mechanism whose purpose it is to ensure that our homeostasis does not become compromised by athletic activity: the “central governor.”

Although this may be obvious to some, it is news to the majority of exercise physiologists, and it is still being debated by cutting-edge researchers. What can you say? Old ideas die hard.

Continue reading The Tales of Forgotten Subsystems, Part II: The “Central Governor.”

The importance of a “Vision.”

These days, we find ourselves in a multitude of wars, literal and metaphoric. We are always fighting against something. Whether it is obesity, aging, injury or death, it seems that most of what we do is to try and stave off the avalanche of the inevitable. This battle cannot be won—and yet we fight it. But the reality is: we don’t have to.

When the majority of us lay athletes begin to exercise, we often do it to hold something at bay. Maybe it’s heart disease. Maybe it’s something else. In systems thinking, is often referred to as “Negative Vision.” We bring into our minds the image of what we don’t want to happen, and we exercise accordingly.

There are several big problems with this approach: first and foremost, we don’t have a mission in mind—something that we are driven to accomplish. For that very reason, we find whatever it is that we’re trying to outrun constantly nipping at our heels. That is a losing battle.

Continue reading The importance of a “Vision.”