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No Roads Lead to Wisdom

Great stuff by my brother.

Single Malt Philosophy

Most people do not know that Bruce Lee studied philosophy at the University of Washington. His project was to bridge Western philosophy with classical Daoism and the traditional Chinese worldview, including yin-yang cosmology and the empty-mind practice we associate with Zen Buddhism. His form of martial expression, Jeet Kune Do, is a manifestation of his philosophy. This is his warning to not try to duplicate the wisdom or insight of others, and to look for your own:

“The founder of a style might have been exposed to some partial truth, but as time passed by, especially after the passing away of the founder, this partial truth became a law or, worse still, a prejudiced faith against the ‘different’ sects. In order to pass along this knowledge from generation to generation, the various responses had to be organized and classified and presented in a logical order. So what might have started…

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What do kids need in order to move more? Basic motor skills.

When we see a 7 year old kid running a football down the field like a pro, we say, “wow—what a natural.” And although nobody would argue that genetics and emotional predispositions play a huge role in determining someone’s athletic potential, we often miss the rest of the picture: that the reason this kid is such an outlier has less to do with their athletic ability than with factors that are preventing other kids from expressing themselves athletically with that same ease.

What separates this “natural” football player from the rest of the kids is most likely not VO2 Max or aerobic capacity (which only grows significantly as we get older) but rather that they have a very strong foundation in what researchers call “fundamental motor skills,” or FMS.

The authors of the article in question write that “locomotor skills and object control skills are . . . the equivalent of the ABCs in the world of physical activity.” When a child acquires these skills at an early age, they are far more likely to seek movement opportunities as they get older, meaning that they will have much greater chances to develop the more complex skills necessary to participate in organized sports.

On the other hand, children that did not develop FMS (and consequently did not have these opportunities) tend to become more sedentary. According to the article cited above, not only do they judge themselves as being relatively less skilled than their friends, but they also don’t have the motor skill competence that would allow them to participate in the majority of sports.

The fortunes of the two groups of kids—those with a motor skill foundation and those without—begins to diverge right around here. A recent study showed that the development of aerobic fitness, which helps reduce risk of cardiovascular problems and associated illnesses, is linked to the acquisition of basic motor skills. As we would expect, the opposite is true as well: the lack of foundational motor skills correlates well with sedentary behavior, ultimately leading to obesity. In other words, we can’t just ask someone to go develop aerobic fitness.

Obesity compounds the situation: not only does the increased mass physically make movement difficult, but the roots of obesity and diabetes are is a dysfunction in how the body manages its energy supply—a condition known as “metabolic syndrome.” And since sustained athletic expression is all about correct energy management, it becomes very difficult for someone with obesity to make a lasting change in their health and mobility, particularly if we emphasize that the solution is to “get out more.” That’s not addressing the problem. It is the underlying lack of motor skills that must be changed.

While the genetic and environmental roots of obesity are well documented, these are merely conditions for the proliferation of obesity. They don’t guarantee obesity. Consider why obesity was so well correlated with a lack of foundational motor skills: if someone with every genetic predisposition towards obesity has an extremely strong motor foundation, they would find themselves making the most of every opportunity for athletic expression. The conclusion of the first article cited reads: “the degree of motor skill competence is a critically important, yet underestimated, causal mechanism partially responsible for the health-risk behavior of physical inactivity.” In other words, those predispositions would likely never manifest, much less turn into a full-blown case of metabolic syndrome.

The fundamental solution isn’t to get kids moving more—at least not when they are already in grade school. By that time, those who are getting left behind are already lagging in their foundational motor skills. We’ve all seen the effect that PE class has on certain kids: for those without the requisite skills, every class, every athletic situation, brings nothing but humiliation. That subset of children, along with a significant portion of those who are overweight or obese, won’t—or rather, can’t—benefit from the opportunity provided by PE class: not only is the social importance given to competitiveness and competence toxic to the motivation of someone who has neither, but also, their skills are often subpar in some important way.

Whatever the minimum standard for competence may be in that particular sport, they aren’t capable of meeting it. As a pitcher, they don’t have enough accuracy with the baseball to be confident they won’t hit the batter. As a soccer player, they don’t have enough gross agility or fine motor control of the feet to go after the ball, expect to win it, or know what to do with it if they did. And the problem—the unseen, unacknowledged problem—is not that they don’t have the skill, but instead that they don’t have the foundation they need for that skill to grow in the first place.

The reason this situation is so well-known to us, and why it exists as such a common trope in coming-of-age movies, is that its underlying causes are so damn opaque to the eyes of the typical athletic coach. Most coaches, even the good ones, just don’t understand what is happening: they focus on the lagging students and attempt to teach them the sport, and consequently destroy their motivation on a wall of frustration. All along, their focus should have been on the foundation. And even those who catch on to the fact that it’s the foundation that’s missing often don’t know where to begin.

Sports or physical education in the classical sense just won’t do the trick. Nor will your average coach or gym teacher. We need a more skilled, more inquisitive, and more creative specialist to deal with this situation. Already, the challenges that face most of these kids aren’t personal—they are systemic. It is not a lack of drive, or willpower, or audacity that stops them. It is their relative motor ability, the laughter of society’s persistent superego, and often, the mass of their own bodies. There is no effective way to address this problem, except at its roots.

And the effects of good motor ability reach far beyond the athletic domain. As recent research has shown, the ability to perceive objects as three-dimensional, and being able to manipulate them, grows alongside motor skill competence. In other words, developing a solid motor foundation has untold cognitive benefits. We owe it to these kids, to the very young kids (and to those who are already highly skilled) to make every motor opportunity available.

Enough of telling little kids to sit still and be quiet. Enough of expecting those same kids to know how to move under their own power two or three years down the line. Enough of forgetting (or never realizing) that the least skilled and least competent are often the most focused and driven. We need to be better than that, for everyone’s sake.

I really hope that Alberto Salazar isn’t cheating.

Apparently, Steve Magness, one of my very favorite coaches, thinks that Alberto Salazar is doping his athletes to win a competitive edge. I’ve written before on how I believe that Salazar is a great coach, particularly since (I believe) he learned from the mistakes of his past—overtraining to the breaking point—in order to take better care of his athletes. That’s one of the reasons I’ve admired him for so long, and why I follow the Nike Oregon Project track stars Mo Farah and Galen Rupp.

Please, Alberto. Don’t let us down.

Here’s the link to the article.

Stop referring to meat as “protein.”

Everywhere I go, it seems that people just don’t understand where protein comes from. At the bus stop, I hear someone asking a vegetarian how they get their protein. At restaurants, I hear meat being referred to as the “protein option.” I see this in random articles throughout the internet.

Frankly, I’m tired of it.

Meat is not the only source of protein. It’s not even the only source with significant amounts of protein. (There’s no conflict of interest here: I’m an enthusiastic meat eater with a vegetarian girlfriend.) But some truths must be spoken. And the truth is that while meat may be the first among equals when considering the sheer percentage of protein, it ranks considerably lower when you look at its cost-effectiveness.

A few days ago I went into the local co-op—This is Portland, by the way—and took a picture of the nutrition facts of a $5.00 packet of turkey alongside a $4.00 packet of tempeh:

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I’ll lay it out for you so that you don’t have to do the math (or look at the tiny text in the picture). The turkey had 5 grams of protein per ounce, while the tempeh had 4 grams per ounce. When you consider that there are 12 ounces (four 3-oz servings) in the package of tempeh and 6 ounces (3 2-oz servings) in the package of turkey, you’re looking at the following results:

  • Tempeh has 12 grams of protein to the dollar.
  • Turkey has 6 grams of protein to the dollar.

You don’t need meat—or any animal products—to get protein. In fact, you’ll get a lot more bang for your buck in your protein consumption of you go full vegan.

And those aren’t the only benefits—go back and look at the sodium content and other nutrients. The tempeh is amazingly better for both your wallet and your body than the turkey could ever be. Not to mention that the tempeh is also strongly probiotic.

Setting the very serious ethical considerations aside, there are immense benefits to eating animal products—that’s why it’s good to eat them when they’re ethically sourced. An enormity of fat-soluble vitamins (A, B12, D, E, K, etc.) are present in animal meat and animal fats (especially those from beef), and other animal products such as eggs.

Animal products are incredibly important, and should be permanent fixtures in any diet—just not for the protein.

Please, leave your robotic performance-enhancing devices at the starting line.

Scientific advances in assistive devices such as supportive robotic exoskeletons can have great benefits for people with irreversible musculoskeletal problems or severe movement impairment. These devices may have excellent military applications.

In this post I’ll discuss something different: the claim, as covered by an article in Outside Magazine, that these devices have a legitimate and lasting place in the domain of athletic performance.

In a word: no. In two: bad idea.

Continue reading Please, leave your robotic performance-enhancing devices at the starting line.

How do we measure athletic performance?

In Critical Chain, Eliyahu Goldratt captures a statement that has been immortalized in the arena of business management:

 “Tell me how you’ll measure me, and I’ll tell you how I’ll behave.”

When the criteria that we measure are wrong, or incomplete, we can create disastrous consequences.

Goldratt tells the story of a steel company, in which the standard for measurement for the production division was tons per hour. This is great, right? Measure how much the production division is putting out, and everything should go well! Well, not so much: this form of measurement wasn’t taking into account the needs of the company as a whole.

As Jamshid Gharajedaghi writes in Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos, “Major organizational theories have implicitly assumed that perfectly rational micro-decisions would automatically produce perfectly rational macro-conditions.”

That was the assumption in this case: measure tons-per-hour (which is a rational measurement for the production division) and the macro-conditions would be rational too: the company would just make more money!

As you probably can intuit, that wasn’t the case: the imperative to maximize tons per hour created a situation where materials that were easy and quick to process were processed first (regardless of delivery promises), and specifications that the buyers asked for were ignored, in order to reduce production time: if the buyers wanted say, a ton of 12” steel beams and a ton of 10” steel beams, the production division would just produce two tons of 12” steel beams (cutting down set-up time by half) and then complain to the supply division that they only received a single ton of steel to work with.

A very similar thing happens in athletic training: we tend to create all the wrong results because here too we measure the wrong things.

For example, look at how catastrophic it has been for a majority of people to focus on weightloss when they want to become “fit.” People have been pushed into disregarding a majority of the body’s systems to focus on only one variable: the amount of visible body fat. That’s what we measure, and people’s behavior typically homes in on body fat (or on any one thing), disregarding anything else.

As Goldratt cautions us, “Most of the local improvements do not contribute to the global.” In other words, by homing in on body fat we might be creating huge problems for us further down the line (see: thyroid problems).

A similar thing happens when we try and measure “miles.” That we measure this is ridiculous, given the well-known saying “quality over quantity.” Well, what is a “quality mile”? Do you know? I certainly don’t—or at least, it hasn’t been defined for me. How many runners out there hobble out their miles, fighting through knee pain and achilles tendonitis, popping kidney-destroying doses of ibuprofen? A lot.

We’re measuring the wrong things, we’re seeing the majority of people behave the wrong way, and we’re achieving the wrong results.

The successful ones are those who staunchly ignore the ravings of modern exercise culture—“fight through the pain,” “pain is inevitable”—and concentrate, against all odds and against the prevailing cultural current, on quality, precision, and correct function.

Even though we’d like to think that these problems are intractable, and solutions are difficult to find, they’re actually out there. Solutions to these problems have been diligently developed in the realm of business management, and have yet to reach the domain of athleticism.

The fact of the matter is that by measuring the wrong things, we’ve created these negative, pathological systems for ourselves. It is because we measure the wrong things, that we create the wrong behaviors. Injury, overtraining, and hypergymnasia don’t exist in a vacuum. They exist in a context of social pressures and cultural expectations—cultural measurements of people. And they’re the wrong ones.

So what are the right ones?

That’s the million dollar question.

The beauty of the thing is that tens of millions of dollars have been already spent in answering this question—and the answer has already saved smart businesses hundreds of millions of dollars. We have ten-million dollar answers to our million dollar question.

And the answer, generally speaking, is to make measurements that reflect the whole, instead of a particular faculty, property, or variable. Generally, this means changing a quantitative measurement (position of the heel upon foot-strike) with a qualitative one (gait harmony).

Instead of measuring foot-strike, let’s measure correct movement. Instead of measuring miles, we can measure distance covered without injury. Or, for example, if we must insist on measuring power, let’s make sure it’s not muscle power (of one or two muscles or isolated systems) but rather athletic power (of various systems in various domains across the whole body).

Always, always, measure the whole. That’s what coach Alberto Salazar does with his Athletes at Nike: he learned the lessons of overtraining—what he calls “extreme athletic excess”—the hard way. And he knows that the only way to get quantity—lower times for his athletes (or perhaps, more medals), is by addressing the qualitative aspects of training, and by being better at it than maybe anyone else in the world.

Most of us fitness enthusiasts know how to periodize training plans so well that we can’t get any better at it. Most of us would benefit little from broadening an already encyclopaedic knowledge of training exercises. How we implement training programs is where most of us fail. And our behavior, the execution of the “how,” is tied above all to the way that we measure ourselves, and to the measurements that we conceive for others.

Let’s make damn sure that they’re the right ones.

A culture of injury

The endurance running hypothesis submits that humans evolved as desert persistence hunters—fast, long-distance running machines. Contemporary research has found no relationship between running and knee osteoarthritis. And the Tarahumara—the Mexican tribe of running people also known as rarámurihabitually run hundreds of miles per week while sustaining only a modicum of injuries. All of this raises the following question:

Why do we continue to insist that running is bad for the knees?

The most immediate answer is that, for a critical mass of westerners, running has actually created a variety of musculoskeletal and metabolic problems, enough so that it’s gotten a bad rap. However, especially in light of the above data, this doesn’t mean that running is bad. What it does mean is that we’re doing something fundamentally wrong.

Like most systemic problems, it has more than one source. Consider this: not only do we run in biomechanically disadvantageous ways, but we’ve done that for so long that the cultural consciousness has internalized this as the notion that running is somehow inherently injurious. Once this idea has been internalized, we lose any incentive, and any reason, to change incorrect patterns of motion. Because we’ve operated for so long under this conclusion, chronic injury and dysfunction becomes not only the standard, but also the norm.

However, it does more than that: chronic injury becomes the badge of the runner—a badge worn with pride. It is at this point that the culture of injury becomes fully cemented. If you aren’t injured, you’re not a “real” runner; you don’t share the burdens that we all share. You don’t go through the constant rite of passage that we all go through. You’re an anomaly, an exception. You’re special. Good for you.

With most runners, injury is the way of the world. Injury is a self-fulfilling prophecy that has everyone singing its virtues. If you aren’t injured yet, you keep training. It’s almost as if you look for injury. Why? Well, because if running is inherently injurious, if you’re not injured, you’re not doing it right. If you don’t have to constantly stretch and rehabilitate and ice and elevate, maybe it’s time to train a little harder.

So, what do we have here? A self-fulfilling prophecy, one which for the majority usually removes the possibility of running completely pain and injury free. The world in which we don’t have to RICE it up all the time, and foam roll our IT band isn’t one we’re used to considering.

Think that this world is a fantasy? Return to the evidence above. You’ll likely find that your skepticism is far more a function of the story we’ve been telling ourselves (and the socio-athletic system that’s emerged from it) than a function of the actual capabilities of your particular human body.

The first step to change this feedback loop is not, of course, to just go out and try to run like the rarámuri. That would be silly. Mere wishful thinking cannot ever replace good biomechanics and great training volume over the course of a lifetime, not to mention the benefits of being steeped in a culture of running. Most of us don’t have that, and never will.

But what we could do is to believe that it can somehow be different. We can believe that, given the evidence above, it makes sense to try and create the world in which we’re not plagued by injury, and beset by the notion that it is somehow an inevitability. Once we believe that, we can realize how antiquated the notion of “pushing through the pain” actually is.

If the plantar fascia begins to hurt, why not change something in our stride so that it stops? Change what? Go figure it out. But the injury is not inevitable. Only the notion of pushing through it—that useless phrase that our athletic culture has given us—makes it a certainty.

Cheating on Fitness Trackers, explained in systems.

One of my biggest issues with fitness trackers is that they threaten our ownership of our physical development.

“Ownership” is the idea that taking responsibility for something increases our motivation to maintain it, our pride in it, and the attention that we give it. (This is the idea that IKEA uses to rationalize having customers put together their furniture: they believe that it will make them happier with it).

When our fitness tracker beeps at us to get up and walk around the office—and that’s the reason we get up—we put more and more of the responsibility on the tracker, and less on us. In a very real way, the tracker becomes more and more of a nagging parent, while we are relegated to the role of looking for ways to thwart its will.

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This is an absurd situation to find yourself in. By making the fitness tracker hold all the responsibility—and therefore all the power in the dynamic—you find yourself being its antagonist, and therefore, antagonizing your own athletic development.

I believe it is because of this dynamic that people put their fitness tracker on their dog to fake miles (or steps), instead of the more straightforward manuever of lying on facebook posts that they write themselves.

This is another classic example of that age-old systemic archetype, Shifting the Burden to the Intervenor. The people that cheat on their fitness trackers have been “shifting the burden” of ownership of their training from themselves onto an intervenor— their fitness tracker—for far too long. Because along with the loss of ownership comes a loss of responsibility, the beeping that was once enough to get them up to walk around now isn’t enough. The use of the fitness tracker means that they don’t have to care as much. The more they use it, the less they care, until one day they don’t care at all.

However, this isn’t a passive process. As mentioned above, there is a power dynamic between the fitness tracker and the fitness trackee. Because the trackee hands of more and more power to the tracker, the loss of caring about fitness is replaced by a guilt associated with not meeting the demands of the powerful party in the dynamic—the fitness tracker. Because all the power has been shifted, it’s very unlikely that the trackee can just toss away the tracker.

The tracker has certain expectations, and they must be satisfied: the power dynamic requires it. And how do these expectations get satsified? By putting the tracker on someone who is lower on the power dynamic: the family pet.

There is another, subtler transformation at play, common to all the iterations of this archetype. The game is no longer what it once was. At the beginning, getting the fitness tracker was about increasing fitness. Now, it has become about fulfillling the expectations of the tracker, in the easiest way possible.

Don’t do this. Our engagement with our athletic development, for it to have any lasting effects, must necessarily be one where we increase our ownership and responsibility, not decrease it.