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The Running Gait, Part 1: Contralaterality

All gait is a contralateral movement. Although It seems like the most obvious statement (perhaps to the point of being boring), it often astonishes me just how unexamined it remains. Discussing both the theoretical and practical implications—what it means for our training—is what this series of posts is all about.

To say that a movement is contralateral is to say that when something happens in one side, the opposite will happen in the other side. During gait, if our left leg moves forward, our right leg moves back. But our gait is also reciprocal, meaning that the limbs in the same side move in opposition to each other, to balance their movement. If our right leg, supporting our body during the stance phase of gait, moves back, our right arm swings forward in a passive motion meant to balance out this movement.

This kind of reciprocal action is very similar to the kind of activity that you find in a lot of modern machines. Let’s take the internal combustion engine as an example. To make this simple, let’s look at a flat twin engine like the one mounted on a lot of BMW motorcycles:


In the image you can see two pistons, each moving in opposition to each other around a crankshaft. This movement is—or should be—a lot like the movement of the legs around the hips. By the way, this imagery isn’t just a metaphor: there are important similarities between the mechanics of the piston system and the mechanics of the hips and legs.

I liken the lowest point in the piston’s rotation to when the leg (the right) is in swing (1). The apex of the piston’s upswing corresponds to midstance, where one leg (the right) is fully supporting the body (2). At the same moment, an opposing piston must be in the lowest point of its downswing in order to balance the mechanism.

Piston Mo
By Zephyris – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Any problems in the balance of the pistons or the crankshaft can cause something to go horribly wrong. The same goes for the body, in order for its movement to be in balance. As the left leg clears the ground behind the body, the right (opposite) arm must be ready to initiate the upswing. And the right leg should be ready to start reaching for the ground below.

Insofar this is the case, the movement can be said to be contralateral.

Let’s look at the pictures of Mo again (taken as he is sprinting down the final stretch of his gold-medal performance in the 10,000 meter event of the 2012 Olympics). As you can see from the right arm in (1) and the left arm in (2), both pictures are taken at the same moment in gait (from the frame of reference of the arms).


By comparing both pictures you can see a bit more flexion in early stance for the left leg (1), than for the right leg (2). At this moment in gait, the right leg trails further behind the body (1) than the left leg. (The left calf (1) is also at a larger angle than the right (2).) Without getting too far into the mechanical details, it would seem that Mo’s having a little bit more trouble stepping forward with the right leg than with the left.

In effect, in picture (1) his left leg is flexed because it’s waiting for the trailing right leg to catch up. And if you look at the orientation of his forearms, you can see that the right elbow (1) is far more flexed than the left (2), mimicking, to almost a perfect degree, the angle of the opposite knee in each of the pictures.

The point is that it wouldn’t matter where you look at the piston system (of an internal combustion engine) from. Whether you observe the piston system from the frame of reference of the piston head, the main axis of the crankshaft, or the counterweights, you would see that the entire system is balanced. Each counterweight remains perfectly opposite to a piston, and the pistons remain perfectly opposite to each other.

This is so important that much of what makes sports cars—particularly “traditional” sports cars like Ferraris—and race cars cost as much as they do is the technology to keep the engine block balanced to the picogram. The better this is accomplished, the more torque can go through the engine without breaking apart the block.

Mo Farah is not some amateur. For the past few years, he has set the highwater mark for excellence in distance running up to the 10,000 meters. And even then there are differences.

Why is this happening? The “big” answer to this question probably isn’t in some esoteric discussion of biomechanics. Quite simply, the 10,000 meters are run on an oval track, and this is the final stretch. For more than 24 laps, he’s been turning into his left leg. It’s probably a lot more tired than his right, so it’s having a harder time supporting his body during stance. (Hence the flexion).

If we asked Mo to keep running for a few more laps (not that he would) we’d find that his right leg would continue to trail a little more, and his left leg would flex even further. If you look at the video you’ll see that even down the final stretch he’s compensating quite well by driving forward with his right shoulder every step.

But as he becomes more tired, we’d see that this strategic compensation stops being enough. We’d probably observe his left foot taking increasingly longer to leave the pronation (flattening) that occurs during the stance phase. The supination (pointing) which occurs towards the end of the stance phase, would come too little, too late, possibly creating a heel whip for the duration of the race.

pronation & supination.png
Pronation and Supination

As this is happening, the huge amount of forces that go into his body as his feet strike the ground will travel through it at increasingly odd angles. There is a potent compounding effect here: The more experienced, fitter, and more rested body aligns itself correctly with the forces of running. The less experienced, less fit, and tired body does not.

For the weekend warrior with the New Year’s resolution, running a marathon is biomechanically a far more hostile experience than it is for the skillful runner. Some people overpronate from the get-go. Others start with a tight hip. Over the course of 40,000 paces, this brings nothing but disaster.

Physics favors the trained runner much like the Greek Gods favored the heroes of mythology, by further increasing their already formidable advantages in battle. The skillful runner already comes into the race with stronger muscles, denser bones, a more resilient nervous system, and a more robust metabolism. As a final reward for their training efforts, the impact forces of running fall into place and work with them, not against.


No good reasons to prioritize anaerobic training. At least 9 great reasons to do some.

A friend of mine recently asked for my thoughts on an article titled Nine reasons to prioritize anaerobic training over cardio. Leaving aside the issue that “cardio” is ill defined and often contains an anaerobic component (which means that it bugs me when people use the word), this is an extended version of what I answered.

My contention is that the article in question doesn’t actually give any good reasons to prioritize anaerobic training over “cardio”—by which I’m assuming the author means “aerobic training.” (For the rest of this article, I’m defining “aerobic training” in opposition to anaerobic training: “aerobic training” is training with no anaerobic component whatsoever).

Don’t get me wrong: the article gives 9 excellent reasons for why to include anaerobic training into your exercise routine. But I’m unconvinced that these are reasons for why to  prioritize anaerobic training in the sense of “if you only have time to do one of these two kinds of training, do anaerobic training.”

Simply stated, that’s not a good idea. While many may argue that I’m splitting hairs, consider what the effect of “why you should prioritize anaerobic training” is to a lay audience. (I believe that) the effect is “anaerobic training is better than aerobic training”. This raises an important question: if it’s good to prioritize anaerobic training, when exactly should we do aerobic training?

Although no training can be said to be “better than another” in a strictly metaphysical sense, aerobic training and anaerobic training each have their advantages. And it is when you consider their relative advantages over one another that the question I italicized above becomes so pertinent: the time to do aerobic training is in fact before and so that you can safely perform anaerobic training.

 So we return to the beginning: while anaerobic training is important and necessary and has its place, its place is auxiliary to aerobic training. This is why:

In my most popular article on the site, titled High-Intensity Fitness Culture, Explained in Systems, I discussed how the anaerobic system is essentially the emergency, high-intensity, powerful, dangerous, and rapidly-exhausting turbocharger that an organism uses to overcome an immediate threat to its existence.

While the anaerobic system is a critical system (worthy of development and training), there are costs to using it: anaerobic activity produces acidic hydrogen ions, which wear down the body. Those costs will become exacerbated insofar the anaerobic system becomes the dominant energy system in the body.

All of which brings us back to the aerobic system. What exactly, does the aerobic system do? Essentially, its function is to provide long-term energy to the body by oxidizing fats (combining fats with oxygen to provide energy), and to assist recovery from anaerobic activities by processing its main by-products: lactate and positive hydrogen ions.

Insofar as your anaerobic system is more powerful than your aerobic system, your body will have a more difficult time recovering from anaerobic workouts. This is a problem for those who gave given anaerobic training priority over aerobic training, and consequently possess anaerobic systems that are more powerful than their aerobic system can sustain.

The aerobic system also happens to be the system that the body uses for its upkeep and longevity. This is an issue for another article, but the reason is because “longevity” is essentially “long-term recovery”—in other words, the ability of the body to keep recovering for longer, before breaks down enough that it dies. (Here’s a hint you can use to reverse-engineer the content of my next article for yourself).

For the sake of clarity, let me reiterate what I discussed in paragraph 4: all the reasons given in the article I’m discussing are great reasons to do anaerobic training, all legitimate and grounded in extensive research. My contention is NOT that the reasons given in the article are somehow illegitimate, but rather that when they are cast as reasons to prioritize anaerobic training, they become (1) quite misleading to the lay audience and therefore (2) dangerous to those who take the article at its word(s)—the particular words in question being “prioritize over”—and naively follow them to their logical conclusion.

(I am NOT arguing that anaerobic training will become dangerous to those who take the words “prioritize over” to mean “modestly include” regular anaerobic workouts into their predominantly aerobic training).

More often than not…

WARNING: Rant Ahead. Be advised: lack of objectivity. Proceed with caution.

More often than not,

You don’t become resistant to fatigue by training in a fatigued state.

You don’t create more strength and power by training yet more strength and power.

You don’t become better adapted to running more miles by running yet more miles.

More often than not,

You need to train without fatigue in order to develop the systems that help you resist it.

You need to train easy in order to let your body grow from strength and power training.

You need to develop the capability to run more miles so that your body doesn’t break when you try to.

More often than not, performance and training are different things.

What do you think (and why)?



Stability and Strength Training a la Maffetone

This post continues a little saga I have going on about the aerobic system and fat-burning in relation to other aspects of training, mostly due to my continuing work with Phil Maffetone and MAF Fitness.

People often ask how—or whether—strength training fits into the MAF method, particularly during times of aerobic base building.

My answer, of course, is YES. (Provided, of course, we usefully define what “strength training” means).

The MAF method prescribes exclusive aerobic exercise—defined as exercise that has a virtually nonexistent anaerobic component—in 3 different situations:

  • When ill, injured, or overtrained.
  • When recovering from any of the three.
  • When doing a period of sports-specific aerobic base-building.

In all other situations, we recommend that 80% of all athletic activity be aerobic, while the remaining 20% (which includes competition) can be anaerobic. But this post I want to talk about how strength training fits into situations 1-3.

The foremost problem with asking how (or whether) strength training fits into these situations is definitional. Strength training, broadly defined, is training which allows the body to exert more force into its environment. And based on this definition, some, but not all, strength training is accepted.

The big question is this: what kind of training is aerobic?

For that, we have to look at why the body recruits the anaerobic system for certain activities. The answer is twofold: (1) because it needs to produce a lot of low-end torque—a relatively high amount of power in a short amount of time—and (2) because that activity is going to last for a few seconds—before anaerobic channels exhaust themselves.

This rules out one particular kind of activity: heavy strength training where the body fatigues itself after a few repetitions. Here is your benchmark: if you can only do 5-8 repetitions before exhaustion, it is because you have recruited anaerobic channels.

This holds regardless of whether the heart rate is “low enough” to be aerobic—or hasn’t climbed enough to “be anaerobic.” So, my suggestion to people is to do strength exercises of more than 12 repetitions.

But there’s another caveat: exercises of more than 15 repetitions are not necessarily aerobic. (For example, a 100 yard sprint consists of 65 repetitions—65 steps—at best). So, for these high (15+) repetition exercises, it’s important that the heart rate reflect that the body is working overwhelmingly aerobically—at what Dr. Maffetone describes as the MAF Heart rate.

Good examples of strength exercises with the potential to be aerobic are: proprioceptive (very light load) deadlifts and squats, push-ups, pull-ups, etc.

I also often recommend stability training as an acceptable supplement for periods of “exclusive” aerobic base training. However, this comes with an important caveat: while stability training is very low-intensity work—which means that it very rarely interferes with aerobic base building—strictly speaking, it is an anaerobic exercise.

Stability is achieved and maintained by very quick, continuous movements of the small muscles of the body, in order to counteract tiny losses of balance before they become serious. Providing stability is therefore largely the responsibility of extremely fast-twitch Type IIX muscle fibers, which rely primarily on anaerobic uses of sugar in order to produce energy quickly enough.

Whenever we are training stability, we are training the anaerobic system.

Is this a problem for aerobic-only training? Not in most cases. If you think about it, “aerobic-only” running has a massive stability component: the entire body must be stabilized every step through constant use of Type IIX muscle fibers.

But these stabilizations are small enough in comparison to the primarily aerobic work of running, that anaerobic debt doesn’t rack up in a way that transforms aerobic running into “anaerobic exercise.”

The point at which stability training becomes anaerobic is when it starts raising the body’s stress levels—when it asks the body to exceed the aerobic threshold (a.k.a. the MAF heart rate).

Whenever you want to do stability or strength training without hindering your aerobic base-building, take your heart rate monitor with you. It’s (almost) as easy as that.

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.

Tranforming Thought into Action with the Pose Method

A great write-up on the Pose Method Sports Technique Specialist Certification!


No recent scientific advance in the world of running has generated more discussion about how we run, and move, than The Pose Method of Running. In fact, this theory, based on Newtonian physics, is what brought about the ‘Natural Running Revolution’ that is transforming running cultures around the world today (misinterpretations and misrepresentations notwithstanding) .

Now, with his new Sports Technique Specialist course at the Romanov academy of Sports Science in Miami,  Dr. Romanov, its founder, is poised to foment yet another athletic revolution inspired by Nature, by teaching students how to apply his unifying theory of movement to all sports – golf, soccer, football, baseball, etc… and all their respective movements –  swinging, kicking, throwing etc…

I recently attended the inaugural clinic and, as one of the first athletes and coaches to learn and successfully apply the Pose Method of Running in the US, I was not surprised to…

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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.


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.”

Embracing The Individual

Elite Performance Psychology

Too often, team sports managements disenfranchise young players or potentially good players by treating them like pieces of meat. For too many coaches, If they are not up to making the first team, they are not important. It is important to remember that athletes (especially young ones) develop at different rates. A weak 12 year old could be an excellent 18 year old if given the opportunity, encouragement and support.

One of the main predictors of player retention is how one is treated by their coach. Whether you are a star player, a good player or a bad player, everybody wants to feel wanted and loved.  In fact Danish child psychologist, Abraham Maslow referred to this in his famous child psychology development model; his “hierarchy of needs” (1970). This transfers and applies to sport also. Other posts relate to a positive type of leadership in sport a coach…

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Why Sonny Bill Williams handed the medal to the child – All Black Culture

Elite Performance Psychology

sonny bill

In what is considered to be one of the greatest acts of sporting humility, Sonny Bill Williams gave his winners medal to a young child after he was tackled by a steward when he ran onto the pitch to greet his heroes after the Rugby world cup in 2015.

People all over the world were mesmerised by the act.

When the All-Blacks come together, high standards are expected. Gilbert Enoka has been their mental skills coach for a number of years. There was a period when becoming an All-Black granted poster boy status for the newcomers. That was a time when the All-Blacks couldn’t win the world cup despite having the talent to do so. Enoka’s influence extends far beyond his job title as mental skills coach and Wyatt Crockett, the loosehead prop, says the squad view Enoka as the custodian of their culture and a huge part of them winning…

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