Category Archives: Thinking in Systems

The “hip complex:” The body’s differential.

The “hip complex”—the intricate arrangement of bone, muscle, nerve, and connective tissue that makes up the human hip—is one of the most sophisticated pieces of machinery in nature. As runners, it behooves us to get to know it intimately, because it is the center of athletic power. When the hips don’t function correctly, the body is not capable of dealing with the majority of the resultant torque (from forces produced during walking and running). This is the source of many common running injuries.

Addressing problems with the hip allows the resultant torque to be properly channeled and allocated to the center of gravity, which, during standing, lies squarely within the hips. Therefore, most interventions into the mechanics of the hip complex have to do with maintaining and facilitating the proper flow of mechanical energy throughout the body.

In Donella Meadows’ list of “leverage points” into a system, changes to hip mechanics are characteristic of place # 10:

10: The structure of material stocks and flows.

In this case “materials” refers primarily to the forces that the body generates and interacts with.

It’s important to discuss the hip complex from a few different perspectives. The technical details of how it functions are extremely important. However, even more important is to understand why it operates as it does: If we understand the proper function that it was evolutionarily designed for, and why it is so important to maintain it in correct working order, we’ll be able to divine many of the details of its mechanical function as necessary side-effects of our journey of athletic development.

Continue reading The “hip complex:” The body’s differential.

Leverage Points Into A System (For future reference).

In Thinking in Systems: A Primer, Donella Meadows outlines 12 “leverage points”—12 places where we can intervene into a system to change its behavior. They are outlined in increasing levels of effectiveness:

12. Constants, parameters, numbers (such as subsidies, taxes, standards).
11. The sizes of buffers and other stabilizing stocks, relative to their flows.
10. The structure of material stocks and flows (such as transport networks, population age structures).
9. The lengths of delays, relative to the rate of system change.
8. The strength of negative feedback loops, relative to the impacts they are trying to correct against.
7. The gain around driving positive feedback loops.
6. The structure of information flows (who does and does not have access to information).
5. The rules of the system (such as incentives, punishments, constraints).
4. The power to add, change, evolve, or self-organize system structure.
3. The goals of the system.
2. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system — its goals, structure, rules, delays, parameters — arises.
1. The power to transcend paradigms.

Continue reading Leverage Points Into A System (For future reference).

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 slow progression

When most people start the long process of becoming a runner, they often begin with a question: “how can I run so that I won’t get hurt?” The very short answer is to begin from almost absolutely nothing, and to go very slow.

I first heard of the slow progression from a story told to me by a friend of a friend (who is a devoted martial artist), who went to China, and sequestered himself with Shaolin monks to develop his skills. For those who don’t know, the Shaolin are a centuries-old order of martial artists, and according to legend, the precursor of Kung Fu.

What I expected were accounts of brilliant and esoteric meditation techniques and rigorous, multifaceted training routines. But what I heard instead was about simplicity. This story has to do with how young monks are taught to jump high. They are told to plant an apple seed, and jump over it 100 times each day.

The first week, the monks only need to jump on flat ground—a challenge so easy that it almost seems like a joke. But slowly, the tree gets bigger. Soon, the monks are jumping inches, and then feet into the air. And they are doing this 100 times a day.

That might seem unremarkable, except for its hidden brilliance: the sheer slowness of the increase. To jump one sixteenth of an inch higher every day does not take remarkable effort—not even when it’s a sixteenth of an inch up from six feet. That’s the point. It takes so little effort to make that tiny increase that the relative wear on the muscles, connective tissues, skeleton and connective tissue is tiny. But the task continues to demand increased power.

The body responds…and continues to respond. The slow progression does its work at the threshold of our awareness: if we’re barely aware of the changes, it’s only because the difficulty of the task is almost nonexistent. To put this in context, think about a contrasting situation: we’re usually hugely aware of something like twisting our foot. Awareness signifies a notable change—an alteration to our structure. We become very aware of twisting our foot because the body will need a long time to heal the bone, tendon, and muscle damage incurred.

In simpler terms, making such a small change is easy. And when the changes remain that small,  even when we’ve already progressed a bit, they get relatively smaller to our perception—the same reason that months and marathons fly by when we’re older, but drag on forever when we’re younger: since we experience more time as we grow older, another month is a comparatively smaller chunk of our experience.

Similarly, as the slow progression continues, development becomes easier (less effortful). And because performance is not only based on power and tissue density but on the brain’s grasp of the task at hand, we develop ever more effective strategies fro engaging with the task—making the relative burden on our biomechanics and metabolism even smaller.

But how should we apply this to endurance running?

Run every day for 2 minutes, at whatever speed you want. Keep that up for 2 weeks. The next 2 weeks, run 4 minutes. The two weeks after that, run 6. 2 minutes is a tiny increase, especially when the previous increase occurred two whole weeks before.

Although this may seem extremely slow at first, why don’t we do the math: There’s 52 weeks in a year. That means that at the end of the year, you can be running 52 minutes a day, every day.

There’s madness to this method. Many of us are inclined to run more at first, because 4 minutes seems like nothing. Like I mentioned above, that’s the point. With the slow progression, we can stay ahead of a multitude of components, including the psychological:

If we run less than we think we can, soon we’ll want it more, and soon we’ll become hungry for it.

How’s that for developing a habit?

There’s more: Most running injuries occur due to the body’s inability to cope with the stresses of the run, in concert with the lack of mechanical knowledge of how to use the body to better deal with those stresses. The sheer slowness of this progression allows our body to learn exactly that—more effective strategies of how to run.

In addition the slow progression develops the fasciae, the fibrous connective tissue of the body, which hold together muscles, tendons and bone. They are only developed under certain conditions: low levels of activity, high repetitions-per-minute, and low strain (effort). As soon as the activity becomes difficult, the body will shunt all blood to the muscles, to meet the demand, and away from the fasciae. We’ve got to keep it easy. For the beginner athlete, effort must be kept at a minimum. All we have to do is follow the slow progression in a disciplined manner.

Developing the fasciae will allow the body to become denser, more interconnected, and more competently able to resist stresses. If the body can’t resist the stresses of the task, it’s will know, and the athlete will feel fatigued and without energy. Fatigue is how the body protects itself.

Strengthen the fasciae, and the body won’t feel the need to protect itself as much from those small shocks—the fasciae have become capable of absorbing the excess energy. The body won’t be worried about developing muscle power anymore, and pretty soon it’ll want to cut loose.

So, you’re 4 weeks in. You just moved up to 6 minutes a day. During those 2 weeks you got progressively faster, as your body became more comfortable with the strain associated with that time. But now it’s 6 minutes. Detecting the slightly increased load, your body slows down. But towards the end of those 2 weeks, you speed up again: your fasciae and other often-uncredited subsystems have gotten more powerful. This is reflected not in the fact that you speed up, but in the ease and the naturalness with which you do so.

You continue the progression up to 52 minutes, and beyond. The limits are far enough away at this point for them to be nonexistent.

A bit of caution: This version of the slow progression will get the beginner athlete far, but it’s not the only necessary exercise for someone who did not spend most of their childhood strengthening their muscle, bone, and connective tissue through competition and play. If you train the correct form for running in parallel to the slow progression, you’ll go much further, much faster. A way to do that, of course, is by jumping rope.

Hint: You can build a slow progression into jumping rope too.

The philosophy of the slow progression is exemplified by a saying that I keep attributing to the special forces (but who knows where these sayings really come from):

“Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.”

Internalize that, and hold it in your mind when you’re thinking of setting your timer for just one more minute, and you might go further than your best expectations. After all, this was never about reaching some goal. It was just about taking another tiny little step. If you keep going like that, sooner or later you’ll leave the finish line in the dust.

Let’s embrace complexity—and work to understand it.

Some of the posts on this blog will be highly technical; others will be tailored for the beginner athlete and the layman in systems. One of my most deeply held beliefs is that for a western athlete, performance is achieved through knowledge.

Therefore, my mission for this blog is to acquaint the casual athlete with technical concepts in systems thinking, sports psychology, and biomechanics. As I alluded to in this post, the vast majority of us don’t have the necessary upbringing and the cultural surroundings to “simply run.” It must be learned. It is vital that we not only learn the knowledge of how to run, but that we internalize two ideas: firstly, that we must learn to run uninjured and free—that for many of us this freedom will not just “appear”—but also that learning, that is, developing ever greater and more complex knowledge of running, (and not just stronger muscles), is where true speed lies.

After all, the body has limits. There are limits to muscle power, and lung capacity—genetic ones, even. But limits to learning? Not so much. Our brains, and our creativity, are the greatest equalizers. He or she who can rely on pure muscle power born from genetics, go ahead. But for the rest of us mere mortals, well, there are many, many variables that we can manipulate: food, energy, sleep, hormones, love, how our feet strike the trail, the sharpness of our mind, the ferocity with which we speed by a fellow competitor—all these are fair game. The physical, the mental, the emotional, the spiritual.

There are systems aplenty to manipulate, if we want to achieve excellence.

But we must learn how to use these systems. We must step outside of our comfort zone, and allow ourselves to transform by the weight of our knowledge, coupled with the weight of our training. And with enough time, dedication, and attention, we too will become exemplars of speed.

Let’s not be overwhelmed by new knowledge. Let’s not back away, and let’s not stick to the familiar. Let’s embrace the complexity of the body. Let’s become comfortable with it—and get to know it. The body is a system, and as such it is highly sophisticated. But that sophistication is built out of astounding simplicity. The more that we get to know how sophisticated the body is, the more its predictability, and its hidden simplicity, will stand out to us.

But there is no way to that end, except through knowledge.

(And perhaps through meditation—but that’s another story).

Ultimately, the purpose of this blog is to make complex systems and biomechanics concepts amenable to the layman, and to the beginner athlete. But excellence is not achieved through sound bites. Performance is not achieved through inspirational remarks. It takes time, deliberation, and attention.

And most of all, in my opinion, it takes an understanding of, and a comfort with, complexity.

Working with chaotic systems: No easy diagnoses in biomechanics.

A few days ago I answered a question by R.B. in this post. R.B. was asking what could be done do to solve a tight hip adductor problem on her dominant side.

I answered that there was a local answer (how to make the symptom better), and a global answer (how to address the underlying cause). The local answer had to do with strengthening the opposing muscles (the hip abductors of her dominant-leg). However, the underlying cause must also be addressed in parallel with the symptom, or the problem will only get worse.

As I was describing how to address the local problem, I pointed out very specific exercises that could be used to take care of it (which I still haven’t posted about). But if we are to extrapolate from there to the global problem (a weakness in the non-dominant leg), we can only have hypotheses, and not conclusions, about what the specifics of the problem are. In other words, we cannot be certain at all of the specifics of the global mechanical problem.

The reason for this is that the body behaves partially as a chaotic system. In layman’s terms, chaotic systems are systems which respond very strongly to very tiny changes in the initial conditions. (Double pendulums are a great example of this). The first time that you let a double pendulum go from a static position, it will exhibit a certain behavior (i.e. spin around in a particular sequence). But the second time you let the double pendulum go from the exact same initial position, the series of spins that it will do will be completely different from the first.

The thing is this: that exact same initial position wasn’t really the same one as before; it was almost the same one. Maybe we would have needed a micrometer to measure the difference, but that’s the thing about chaotic systems—they respond in wildly different ways to very similar conditions.

(The butterfly effect is an example of pop-culture knowledge of the behavior of chaotic systems).

Let’s bring this back to R.B.’s question.

Let’s say that I did indeed properly diagnose R.B’s symptom: Tight hip adductors causing knee pain. But suppose that R.B. had experienced a shoulder injury as a child, which caused tendon damage. Because all of the muscles and tendons of the body are mechanically connected and influence one another (since the entire bone structure shifts as if it were a mobile), that shoulder injury matters both to the global tension pattern in the body and to the brain’s calculations of how it is going to solve the mechanical challenge of keeping R.B. balanced on two feet.

That slight addition to the initial conditions (the addition of a supposed shoulder injury) could make for a wildly different compensation pattern. It’s important to know whether or not that’s the case. The only way to become completely certain is to do an analysis in addition to R.B.’s report of the apparent symptoms. (Medicine practitioners will recognize this as a signs and symptoms assessment).

It’s important to note that because of the brain, the the body a more easily predictable system than a double pendulum, because the brain regulates the body’s behavior. No such regulatory apparatus exists for the pendulum; the pendulum is both chaotic and ballistic; its trajectory cannot be altered from within after it is put into motion. (Hence the saying “he went ballistic”).

The problem with diagnosing R.B. is that it’s necessary that I make a very accurate inventory of the initial conditions (the symptoms) before I extrapolate and ask, “given these conditions, how is the body most likely to solve the global problem of maintaining R.B. vertical?” In fact, even that is irresponsible—which is why I only gave R.B. a set of general exercises that address the whole region of the body that will need to get strong in order for the non-dominant leg to take more of the support.

(Remember that the body is only somewhat chaotic; there are regions of the body designed to perform certain functions). Most of the muscular burden for supporting the body goes to the outside and back of the body. This is especially true for the leg and hip: The largest muscles of the body, the quads and the glutes, are located on the back and sides of these bodily regions.

And it’s not just me that knows this—R.B.’s body also does. In other words, I can depend on R.B.’s brain (that regulatory mechanism), to find a mechanical solution for how to keep R.B. on two feet somewhere within that region. So, by strengthening those muscle groups and muscle chains, we can be reasonably certain that the problem will go addressed.

But for those same reasons, I couldn’t give a specific exercise. There’s no way to know, except by taking that knowledge and making an organized (and hands-on) mechanical diagnosis of the region. Only then can we know what specific effects those particular initial conditions turned out to have in this case.



Ultrarunning and the ideal female body

I found this very interesting article, titled Beyond the Marathon: (De)Construction of Female Ultrarunning Bodies.

As with most scholarly works, it’s both dense and eloquent. In addition, it brings up several interesting points, including, (but not limited to) the following:

  • In a sport such as ultrarunning, the ideal performance body is often defined by an ideal body shape.
  • The authors, however, also hypothesize that ultrarunning may be more amenable than other sports (and other social situations) to allow women to self-determine, i.e. to create a (more) unique identity.

In other words, this article examines an interface between a biological system (the body), a physical system (the demands of the race) and a social system (the female ideal). 

In a future blog post I’ll discuss this article at length, paying special attention to its findings in relation to the mission of my blog.

But for now, I’m curious to know what you think about the article, or about how the biological-physical system and social systems interact in ultrarunning, running, or the sports culture. In other words:

  • How do you think that social dynamics (and identity politics) influence running, sports, and ultrarunning?
  • How do you think that physical systems of running, ultrarunning, and sports as a whole, influence the emergence of particular social dynamics?

UPDATE: For your convenience, here is the abstract: 

This article examines the ways in which high-performance female ultrarunning bodies are created and understood through the discourses of the normative running body, the ideal female body and pain. Using a Foucauldian framework, this paper shows how the ultrarunning body becomes a desired body beyond the marathon and how these same desires produce multiple and complex subjectivities for female ultrarunners. In-depth interviews were conducted with 8 high performance female ultrarunners. Findings suggest that ultrarunning is a sporting space which gives rise to more diverse subjectivities than previously found in distance running literature. Simultaneously, this discourse produces disciplined bodies through the mode of desire and “unquestioned” social norms, paralleling the constructs of extreme sports and (re)producing middle-classness.



Gravity: The dilemma of the “slow runner.”

Some of us just want to run slowly. We don’t really want to get fast—we just don’t care.

That’s okay. We’re all entitled to our own ways of running. But while we do that, we should recognize that there are some ways of running that observe the realities of the world (and some that don’t). Someone I met once said:

All models are wrong, and some are useful.

That goes for any and all of our ideas, including our body’s idea of what is the best way to run. No idea will ever be able to exactly model the world. But some are more useful than others—and the useful ones are useful because they account for such realities with a certain success.

We must stand in observation of the reality that, when we run, the most important force we will interact with is The Force of Gravity. The quality of our interactions with gravity will determine whether we become injured or not (among other things, like speed).

In systems thinking terms, we move and live within a particular physical system. Inside of that system, there are certain constant and variable forces which the body must be capable of interacting with. If it isn’t (yet) capable of interacting with those forces, and we push it to do so, we will compromise its integrity.

In that system, if we push off the ground, we will accelerate back to it at a rate of 9.78m/s² (32ft/s²). Which means two very important things: first, that the longer we are suspended in the air, the more we will accelerate. Second, in order to maintain bodily integrity, our muscles (but also our bones and connective tissue) must be strong enough to resist the stresses incurred by interacting with that magic number.

What this amounts to in athletic terms is that body must have (1) very strong muscles, capable of responding explosively in sustained activity, and (2), the ability to maintain the center of mass (the torso) relatively stable throughout the run. In other words, it must have the ability to make the torso rise and fall as little as possible. 

How does the body achieve this mechanically?

By moving the legs faster, i.e. increasing the stride rate (to somewhere around 180 steps per minute). If we can make our feet strike the ground 20 milliseconds (.02 seconds) faster than before, that would be .02 seconds less that we’d be accelerating towards the ground. Stronger and more powerful muscles (to move our legs faster) mean that we’re accelerating less towards the ground. But here’s the kicker:

It also means that they are more capable of withstanding the stress placed on them by gravity.

But wait: there’s more!

As Owen Anderson writes in Running Science, if we could make a 20 millisecond (ms) improvement between footfalls, that would constitute a time improvement of 756 seconds across the duration of a marathon—in other words, an improvement of 12 minutes and 36 seconds! As Anderson himself writes:

[That is] an almost infinitesimal change and therefore one that most runners can easily make.

In the interest of beating this point into the ground (pun intended), that’s 12 minutes and 36 seconds we’re not accelerating towards the ground. And remember the thing about acceleration: the first 20 milliseconds and the last 20 are not created equal.

If we’re running at 150 steps per minute, we might be in the air for 60% of the gait cycle. Doing the calculations for you, we’re accelerating towards the ground for 116 ms.

At the end of the first 20 ms of acceleration, we’d be going at a speed of .09 m/s second (.29 f/s).

At the end of the 116 ms of acceleration, we’d be going at .056 m/s, or 1.64 f/s.

But if we make a 20 ms improvement from 116 (in other words, 96), our maximum falling speed would be of 0.47 m/s, or 1.54 f/s.

Let’s reiterate: A 20 ms improvement from 116 ms means that the runner is going a tenth of a foot per second slower upon hitting the ground, and it’s only that way because of muscles that are stronger.

If take the time and energy to make our bodies more capable of interacting with gravity, we will inevitably end up being the faster version of ourselves.

Let’s internalize this, because it really does constitute the minimum passing grade of the “entry exam” for a runner:

Being strong enough to interact with gravity is the minimum power requirement for a human runner.

Although elite runners have muscles that are much more powerful than necessary to deal with the requisite 9.8 m/s², that number is where the laws of physics and the Earth’s mass have set the bar for human runners. That is our system. Those are its requirements. Let’s stand in observation of that fact.

There are two good ways that I know of, that can get us to meet those requirements. The first is by jumping rope as I’ve described, and the second one is an exercise in this video by Dr. Mark Cucuzella (at 6:09).

(By all means, look at the entire video—it’s very engaging and informative).

Now, go talk to gravity until you’ve gotten to know it like an old friend.

UPDATE: You can find a couple of good discussions on stride rate and running speed here and here.

Tight leg adductors: a common problem, its possible source, and some tips on how to address it.

Over on Facebook, R.B. asked me:

Recently, I’ve been unable to go running for more than 15 minutes without experiencing discomfort in my right knee (my dominant side). Even jumping causes some minor pain. It cracks a lot when I flex and extend it; so does the left side but not nearly as much as the right. From my preliminary research on the matter, I think I have “runner’s knee.” It may have to do with how hard I was training for a while (2x a day, running, weights, parkour, etc.) and then suddenly stopped the intensity for a couple of months this summer when I went to Brazil. Now that I’m jumping back into it, it’s been surprisingly difficult to find the right balance. Anyway, I guess my question is–do you have any suggestions (ie. exercises, readings, whatever) so I can get back to running while minimizing the likelihood of injury? I would greatly appreciate it

Before we begin, a standard disclaimer: I am NOT a physical therapist. I happen to know a lot about the body and I’ve solved this particular problem for myself and others. R.B., I would suggest that you consult a clinician, and take my advice with a grain of salt. That said, let’s go at it:

R.B was referring to a cracking on the inside of her dominant leg. This is most likely a malfunction of one of the muscles that connect the inside of the hip to the inside of the tibia on a spot called the pes anserinus, or “goose foot.”

Note that this is happening on her dominant side.

Let’s think systemically about this: Why is this happening? What problem is the body trying to solve?

Because the dominant leg is the one that supports the most weight, the body wants to bring it further in towards the center of gravity, i.e. towards the midline of the body. Imagine that you are supporting a wooden beam on two columns, but one is strong and one is weak. You’re going to want to put the strong column closer to the center, to support more weight. That’s exactly what the body is doing here:

It’s putting too much weight on the dominant leg because the non-dominant leg is too weak.

This is an example of a systems thinking concept: Shifting the Burden.  (In this case, the burden of supporting the body in an upright position is shifted from both legs onto the dominant leg). 

In order to manage that added burden, the body overuses the adductor muscles of the dominant leg, (which pull the leg towards the midline). And because the dominant leg doesn’t come out much (because it has to stay in to support the weight of the body), the abductor muscles, which pull the leg out, get very little work.

So, what happens is that you get adductor muscles which are too tight, and abductor muscles that are too weak.

Now, there are two answers to this question, and BOTH are important. The first answer is global: the system is developing a strategy of how to perform the function that R.B. is asking of it, and it’s putting too much weight on the dominant leg in order to perform that function. These kinds of sub-optimal strategies are what my favorite biomechanics bloggers, The Gait Guys, call a “compensation pattern.” As they like to say:

What you see in someone’s gait is not their problem, but rather their strategic compensation around the problem”

Let me reiterate that R.B.’s dominant leg had tight adductors because her non-dominant leg was carrying too little of her entire weight. In other words, the problem is that her non-dominant leg—particularly, the extensors and abductors on her non-dominant leg—are probably not strong enough. (In other words, the same analysis that we did within the same leg can be tentatively extrapolated to the entire body): If a set of muscles on one leg are too tight, the opposite set of muscles on the other leg will be too weak.
The second answer is local: It has to do with the adductors of the dominant leg. I’m going to post a video about how to train the adductors for this kind of problem in a few days, so for now let’s talk about ways in which we can solve the likely global (systemic) problem.

In order to see the most likely systemic problem, we have to cut across the whole body: if the muscles on the front outside of the dominant leg (abductors) are too weak, it is likely that the muscles on the rear outside of the non-dominant leg (primarily the extensors but also probably the abductors) are also too weak. Let me be clear that these are just the most likely culprits. It’s impossible to know specifically without looking at your particular case. The job of the muscles I mentioned is to hold up the leg—the very task that the non-dominant leg wasn’t doing well the first place.

R.B., I can’t give you a specific exercise for your non-dominant leg. That would be irresponsible on my part. But I can give you a general one:

The Gait guys have a cool abductor\extensor exercise that I think would be useful in your case (for your non-dominant leg). Here’s the link to the video.

What you could also do is this: during the same period (say 2-4 weeks) you are training the abductors of your dominant leg, also jump rope for a few minutes in the way I suggest. However, since you want to strengthen the extensors/abductors on your non-dominant leg, I would suggest that you emphasize jumping on your non-dominant foot. By that I mean that if you jump rope (with both feet) for a total of 6 minutes, jump 30 times on your non-dominant foot every minute.

You DON’T want your muscles to get too tired while doing this; you just want to get the non-dominant leg used to the motion of carrying your body alone.

Especiallyyou want the extensors/abductor muscles of your non-dominant leg to develop along with the abductors of your dominant leg. 

You should ensure that the relative strength of both relevant muscle groups stays constant, or you’ll create another compensation pattern.

Also the reason you want to jump rope during this period is to ensure that the strength is being incorporated into a motion pattern. It doesn’t matter how strong any of your muscle groups are if your body doesn’t know that they should be used as part of the holistic motion pattern. Getting them this motion pattern will allow you to eventually succeed on this task.

The best way to get the most bang for your buck out of this would be to jump rope after the training session for your dominant-side extensors/abductors. That way, they’ll be activated and slightly tired when you jump rope, so your body will be able to incorporate them into the motion much more easily.

Please put your questions in the comments; I’ll address them there.

Thanks for reading!

UPDATE: If something about running is difficult for you, or it’s difficult to get started running, there’s a comment thread going here.

“Shifting the burden” in running.

Shifting the burden is a systems thinking notion that refers to a tendency to shift responsibility for the functioning of the system onto external factors. Take crutches as an example. When we use crutches, we shift the burden of keeping us in balance away from our inner ear, the calculations of our cerebellum (located at the base of the brain), and the resulting activity of the muscles that work to keep us upright. They no longer need to bear the burden of balance. Now the burden is on the crutches.

For now, let’s put aside the fact that some people need to use crutches to move around in the world. Instead, lets focus on what would happen if a fully able-bodied person begins to use crutches: they would begin to lose the back strength necessary to balance their own bodies.

There are many examples of this phenomenon. Most of us are aware that astronauts experience bone and muscle deterioration while in space, to such an extent that it becomes vital for them to maintain a rigorous exercise routine during missions. A much less extreme example of this is when we put our arm in a cast to heal a broken bone: after two months of immobility, that arm will be much thinner and weaker than the other.

In both cases, the burden of support was shifted away from the muscles and bones, and they grew correspondingly weaker.

“Shifting the burden” is relevant to running because as a society, we have largely shifted the burden of developing speed away from the body and onto the sports drinks and shoe industry.

But that industry helps a lot of people get started! There would be many people that wouldn’t be able to run marathons if not for big-heeled running shoes and energy gels!

That’s the problem. Big-heeled running shoes is a quick-fix. Imagine how much longer it would take to go through the trouble of making a comprehensive mechanical assesment of the body, and taking the time to develop all the correct muscular systems. Just put motion-control shoes on someone, and you can get them running now!

Let me share a little nugget of wisdom from The Fifth Discipline, one of the most important works of Systems Thinking. Peter Senge writes:

“An underlying problem generates symptoms that demand attention. But the underlying problem is difficult for people to address, either because it is obscure or costly to confront. So people “shift the burden” of their problems to other solutions—well-intentioned, easy solutions which seem extremely efficient. Unfortunately, the easier “solutions” only ameliorate the symptoms; they leave the underlying problem unaltered. The underlying problem grows worse, unnoticed because the symptoms apparently clear up, and the system loses whatever abilities it had to solve the underlying problem.”

Fixing the body’s biomechanics and making sure everything is in tip-top shape and ready to run a 5k or a marathon is both obscure and costly to confront (in time, energy, and vision, if not money). Once the underlying problem of shifting the burden (say, to running shoes with a big heel) has grown bad enough, we experience a breakdown in the system’s capabilities: injury.

“Shifting the burden” occurs all over, and not just in physical systems: people shift the burden of interacting socially away from their abilities and from managing their anxiety onto alcohol, for example. You add a little bit of alcohol, and the tongue loosens. But begin to depend on it too much, and eventually it’ll begin to negatively affect your social interactions—making the very problem that you were trying to solve grow even worse.

This discussion illustrates the reason why I use systems thinking to develop my training routines. As long as the thing that we’re trying to develop is some kind of system, the principle of “shifting the burden” will hold. In other words, it doesn’t matter what kind of system we’re talking about. If the burden of its performance gets shifted onto another system, it will become dependent on that other system.

By coming to the conversation armed with systems thinking, we can neatly sidestep the discussions of whether soft shoes are better than minimalist shoes (or whatever). If what we’re doing is an example of shifting the burden, the system is going to head towards dependency and an eventual inability to perform. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the economic system, the psychological system, or the musculoskeletal system. No matter what the doctor tells you:

“Any long-term solution must strengthen the ability of the system to shoulder its own burdens” – Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A primer.

It’s a sad story for those maximalists pushing their Hoka Ones like happy candy: soft shoes with big heels are an excellent example of shifting the burden. For example, it has been argued that heeled shoes allow the leg to strike the body ahead of the center of mass (i.e. the torso). This shifts the burden of increasing the length of the stride away from the quads and the glutes on the pushoff (rear) leg and away from the flexors on the swing (front) leg.

Because now the stride can be longer despite weaker muscles, running will now incurring massive stress damage to the body. (For a longer discussion on this point, see this post.

We don’t have wait for the debate between minimalists and maximalists to settle in order to decide whether shoes with a big heel-toe drop is good for us or not. That’s not the point. All we have to ask is: are we shifting the burden of [blank] away from [blank]?

In future posts, I’ll write extensively about many of the ways in which we shift the burden, and how to shift it back to our biomechanics and physiology. For now, we can begin that general process by thinking about a quote from Bruce Lee:

“It’s not the daily increase but the daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.”

This isn’t just a cute tidbit of wisdom. As I’ve discussed before, the ways in which we think about things affect our biomechanics. The reason Bruce Lee’s speed and power was unequaled was probably because of the unequaled discipline and creativity with which he maintained an evolving understanding of such philosophical statements.

Like Bruce Lee, find those systems we shift the burden towards. Through trial and error, lets hack away at them.