Tag Archives: assumptions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we did it ourselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eli Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints in running coaching: can we reliably create sustained athletic achievement in runners?

“Sustained athletic achievement” is a phrase seldom heard when talking about runners. By now, nobody needs to quote the staggering injury statistics in Western running populations: According to an epidemiological study, there are 2.5 to 12.1 injuries for every 1000 hours of running. 20 to 70% of those injuries are recurring, and 30 to 90% of those injuries result in a reduction in training.

Is this because running is inherently injurious? Probably not—and some would argue that we’re in no position to know: the rates of injury aren’t due to the fact that we’re running, but instead due to the fact that we’re running unprepared. In Movement, Gray Cook writes that “many times, the activity gets the blame when the blame should be placed on the poor foundation the innocent activity was placed upon.”

Let’s translate this: are our calves mobile and strong? Are our hips stable? Are our flexors and extensors working well together with our abductors and adductors? These are questions that runners typically only ask themselves after an injury or ten.

Whenever we train an athletic activity such as running, it’s important to figure out what might hold our training back, rather than just going out to hit the pavement and hope for the best. There is a theoretical framework that may provide us with a systematic way of finding solutions to these widespread problems: Eli Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints (TOC).

At the general level, the Theory of Constraints consists of 5 steps:

  1. Identify the system’s constraint.
  2. Decide how to exploit the system’s constraint.
  3. Subordinate everything else to the above decision.
  4. Elevate the system’s constraint.
  5. Find the new constraint.

In Critical Chain: the theory of constraints applied to project management, Graham K. Rand writes: “The system’s constraint is the part of the system that constrains the objective of the system.”

Overuse injuries in running are rarely generalized. In other words, it’s always something specific: either a bad knee, or shin splints, or plantar fasciitis is stopping us. In other words, that’s the constraint that doesn’t let us log more miles.

A lot of us are really good at doing the first two steps. We already identified the constraint (at least superficially speaking)—say it was a tight IT band. Then comes step two: deciding how to exploit the system’s constraint. We roll out our tight IT band, so that we can log as many miles as possible.

But a lot of us don’t get past step 2: we keep logging miles and more miles, until our IT band is so sore that we can’t run at all. Doing step 3 would mean figuring out how many miles we can run without injury. Here’s the problem: if we actually did an honest assessment, the answer would typically be “not many.” Certainly not enough to train for a marathon, probably just enough to train for a 10k.

Which brings up to step 4. We’re trying to train for a marathon—or train for a fast 5k—and this IT band doesn’t let us go far or fast. What do we need to do? Elevate the system’s constraint. Otherwise, that tight IT band won’t let us develop the speed or endurance we need for our event.

When you look at the problem of athletic development broadly, it doesn’t make much sense to spend time and effort developing endurance when a problematic knee or IT band isn’t letting you progress.

In Critical Chain, Eli Goldratt writes: “What property typifies the chain? It is the strength of the chain. If one link breaks, just one link, the chain is broken. The strength of the chain drops to zero.”

This is the tired story of overuse injuries and recurring injury in runners. We often sideline ourselves by running through injury. We break the chain, instead of strengthening it.  We try to increase our endurance, when ironically our present endurance may be greater than we know—but we can’t experience it, given that the system is constrained by a malfunctioning part.

We should always focus on the weak link. “Remember,” Goldratt writes. “You are not really interested in my link. You are interested in the chain. If I made my link stronger, how much did I improve the strength of your chain? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

In previous posts, I’ve alluded to the possibility that “the plateau” may be deeply related to the flawed thinking that Goldratt attempts to correct: perhaps the case is that we’re training endurance when the constraint of the system is strength, or hip stability. We don’t see gains in endurance because we don’t address the constraint, and we perceive that we “plateaued.”

What’s the problem? Why did we miss the constraint?

The problem, Goldratt proposes, may be in our ideas and in our personal culture. A typical assumption in project management is that “the only way to achieve good global performance (is through good local performance everywhere.” Although this idea seems to make sense at face value, Goldratt disagrees: “The fact that so many managers and almost all our systems are based on this assumption is regarded by TOC as the core problem…”

Project management and athletic training are not so far apart: the same problem is present in both. Look at your training plan.Most athletic programs look for good local performance everywhere. Chances are that your training plan is similar to many other training plans: do fartlek, strength training, endurance, cardio.  The mainstream philosophy is to hit every side of the problem, all at once. Of course this works, in the sense that the body develops, but does it work well?

By the best standards, probably not. And if you keep getting sidelined by injury, certainly not.

I hope to have shown that the principles provided by the Theory of Constraints can be easily adapted to create a system for athletes and coaches, by which they can jointly achieve two objectives that are typically at odds with each other: injury prevention/management and athletic development. Applying the Theory of Constraints to athletic coaching may allow us to define athletic development in such a way that these two objectives cease to be in conflict. I believe that on a deep level, this conflict of interests is the likeliest culprit of the staggering running injury statistics. Settling it will benefit athletes, coaches, and the running culture in general.

I’ll devote my next post to fleshing out the details of this conflict of interest (and how to resolve it).

Walking, jogging, running, and how gravity defines them.

What is the difference between walking and running? As runners, particularly runners who often stake their identity on running, this is a question that we should have thought deeply about. But the reality is that in the vast majority of cases, it remains ignored.

Say, the simplest and perhaps most important difference between walking and running—or at least the one with the most consequences—is that running includes a flight phase while walking does not. In other word, walking has a static interaction with gravity, while running has a dynamic one. But upon further consideration, there’s a lot more to be said:

Bounding (by which I mean jumping continuously) also has a flight phase. So does skipping. Of course, these are obviously different from running in that running alternates support, similarly to walking, whereas bounding does not (since both feet land together) and neither does skipping (since each foot repeats its support of the body before alternating to the other).

Running is somehow special when you compare it to bounding and jumping, at least as far as the body is concerned: when we need to travel faster than walking allows, neither bounding or skipping are our go-to methods of travel. Instead, we run. Although this may seem too obvious to be important, it’s important precisely because of that: What is it exactly that running offers us?

All the biomechanics junkies are way ahead of me at this point. Running offers us a way to contralaterally (read: using one leg and its opposing arm) maintain balance and support: when one leg pumps down, the other arm comes up, allowing the body to push on the ground alternately while not compromising balance.

And there’s another requirement: running uses the energy return capabilities of our tendon system (in particular the achilles tendon) to maximize running economy. This means that, by loading the achilles tendon like you would load a spring, the body manages to put the force that it arrives at the ground with into the next step, to make running more “economical” by reducing the amount of energy that the body puts into the next stride cycle: the achilles tendon stretches during the landing and stance phase, and then shortens explosively during pushoff, when the leg and foot, well, push off against the ground to begin the next stride cycle.

Neither bounding nor skipping allow us this increase in economy: to be able to bound successfully, we would have to be counterbalanced in the sagittal plane, (read: front to back) in order to put the hips at the midline of the body. Basically, we’d need a tail. But since we don’t, when we land from a bound (or squat), the hips are behind the center of gravity, and the knees are in front, in order to compress the body properly.

But if we had a tail like a kangaroo, the hips would remain under the center of gravity during the landing phase, because our weight would be more evenly distributed behind and forward of our hips. Without going too far into it, this means that the force put into each bound is primarily generated by muscle power for us, whereas for the kangaroo it is a product of tendon energy return. Skipping doesn’t increase economy either since energy is lost in that second step before alternating legs.


So, we can begin to lay down the differences between running and walking in this short list:

  1. A flight phase
  2. Contralateral stance and equilibrium
  3. A maximization of running economy

This is where we finally get to why “interaction with gravity” is so important: when running, the human body puts itself at risk of injury by taking off and then accelerating back to the ground, but it is counting on using that acceleration, generated by the force of gravity, to power its next step. This means that an important amount of the energy that is being put into each step is borrowed from the last, and doesn’t come from inside the body at all.

Running diverges from jogging in the following way: Jogging doesn’t really harness the energy return properties of the tendon system. It doesn’t allow for an improvement in running economy. Why not?

In order to create energy return, the relevant tendons (say, the achilles) have to remain taut during the landing phase, in order to stretch. This means that as the foot lands, the extensor muscles along the rear of the leg (hamstrings, gastrocnemius, glutes) begin contracting even as the frontal muscles (quads, tibialis anterior) take the majority of the load.

When the back and front muscles play together like that, a large amount of the energy that the body accelerated towards the ground with goes into the tendon system, and gets released as the foot leaves the ground.

During a jog, the leg muscles are working in a fundamentally different way. Because a jog is slower than a run, the forces being generated are a lot smaller, and so a the rear and the front muscles of the leg can work relatively independently of one another: the front muscles take the body’s load when the foot comes down, and the back muscles push off as the leg goes back. The tendons never become stretched, so they don’t get loaded that much at all.

This means that the jogging cadence is much slower than the running cadence: in order to maximize tendon load, the body is forced to increase the speed and rate at which the legs hit the ground: since the muscles at the back of the leg tense the tendon springs, this drives the leg down at a much greater speed than otherwise, resulting in a faster transition from landing to pushoff, resulting in a much faster stride rate.

However, this also separates jogging from actual running from a power standpoint: in order to run rather than jog, the muscles must be powerful enough that they can hold the tendons taut while the weight of the body comes down. (And of course, the tendons must be resistant enough to support this).

This is the minimum bar in order to run—developing enough leg power (and naturally, the aerobic power necessary to sustain it) that three interrelated capabilities emerge:

  1. The ability to hold the tendons taut throughout the stride cycle.
  2. Increasing the stride rate and successfully maintaining it.
  3. Equipping the body to successfully load tendons instead of absorbing power with muscle and bone tissue.

I believe it is these three capabilities that make someone a runner.

Hitting The Wall: “The Tragedy of the Commons” in the marathon.

All of us marathoners have a feared enemy: “The Wall”—that shock of exhaustion that always hits around mile 19. Those of us who are ultrarunners have gotten to know it better than our oldest friend. For some of us, it just might be our oldest friend.

We’re all beset by The Wall, until one day we outrun it, and it vanishes in the road behind us.

But why is The Wall such a shared experience? Why does it happen? And perhaps most intriguing: is it possible to find a way around it?

Yes. Systems thinking lets us explore recurring patterns of behavior, which is why it helps us to understand The Wall. The Wall isn’t inevitable; it isn’t “a fact of life” for runners. Most runners use their bodies in a particular way, and The Wall arises from the reality that most runners don’t use their bodies in the right way.

How many times have I heard a runner say, near the beginning of the race: “I’ll charge up this hill while I still have energy!”

Many. And that’s because the patterns of behavior that elicit such thinking are rampant. Continue reading Hitting The Wall: “The Tragedy of the Commons” in the marathon.

Are you obsessed with getting fit?

The New York Times just came out with an article about the American fascination with “extreme fitness.”

The article critiques this trend on several grounds:

  • People are paying money to mimic hard labor; why not just go work construction?
  • The fitness trends of today are usually modeled after a watered-down version of “ultramasculine” groups like Navy Seals.
  • In these trends, “fitness” is often achieved at the cost of health. The NYT article that this isn’t fitness at all.

I have a post in the makings about my own opinions on these things, but first, I’d like to hear what you have to say.

Read the article (also linked here)—or don’t—and tell me what you think about the extreme fitness trends (or the critiques of it) in the comments.

Anything goes.

An internet encounter with static stretching.

Yesterday, while I was browsing Facebook, I happened to click on a link that advertised the 30 best premium WordPress themes. Curious, I started to browse through the list, and I came upon one that I was curious about: “spartan,” which has a nice internet-mag style layout.

As I looked at the live preview—nothing fancy; just catchy headlines, stock images and lipsum text—I scrolled down and saw that one of the example articles had a headline that read: “Don’t forget to stretch after your workout!”

Continue reading An internet encounter with static stretching.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The importance of a “Vision.”

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

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

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

Continue reading The importance of a “Vision.”