Tag Archives: athletic performance

What is the role of efficiency in athletic performance?

In various social media, the following observation was made several times about my last post: efficiency plays an important role in athletic performance.

Yes. Efficiency is an essential indicator of athletic performance. However, all efficiencies must be in service of greater power production, not simply sought after without a good reason: efficiency has no real benefit when divorced from other variables.

Here’s a quick but illustrative example: It takes a lot more energy to keep a spine straight, with hips, head, and shoulders evenly stacked, than it does to let that spine develop a pronounced thoracic kyphosis—the spine and shoulder curvature we associate with “bad posture.” Does this consume less energy? Yes. But in doing so, it puts a variety of systems—not just muscles, but even the respiratory system—at a disadvantage.

(Tellingly enough, there’s an important relationship between metabolic and aerobic power and the capability to maintain an upright posture).

Good Posture, brought to you by Achilleus

If we try doing a front squat with bad posture, we’ll set ourselves up for either a plateau or an injury. In effect, we have to resolve this problem by increasing the body’s energy consumption (reducing efficiency) in order to produce the alignment that allows us to correctly perform this movement under load.

Ultimately, however, efficiency is extremely important in sports such as running. This is known as running economy. Elite runners tend to have great running economy, meaning that they use less energy to cover a certain distance.

There are a few ways that running economy can be improved: one is to increase aerobic power. Six times as much energy can be gotten from molecules of glucose that are burned aerobically rather than anaerobically.

Another way is to increase neuromuscular synchronization and power. A knee that collapses in or hip that collapses up during the running stride is known as a “power leak,” meaning that muscles are misaligned and therefore pushing the body up, laterally, or rotationally instead of contributing to driving it forward.

Yet another way to increase running economy is to become smaller. This includes having reduced fat percentage and increased muscle percentage, but it encompasses more than that: runners that are volumetrically smaller have a much easier time traveling distance than runners that are volumetrically larger. Why? If you’re taller, not only will your bones and muscles have to be thicker (in order to retain the same proportions), but then your organs, especially your heart and circulatory system, will be working that much more to pump blood from your toes to your brain.

It doesn’t matter what aspect of running economy you’re talking about. Not only does the economical runner expend less total energy than the non-economical runner, but a greater percentage of total energy expenditure ends up going towards crossing the finish line rather than being lost in vertical, lateral, or torsional oscillation, power leaks, or greater metabolic upkeep.

The question of efficiency or running economy should always be asked in tandem with the question of athletic performance: is seeking some initial efficiency—for example, bowing my upper back because I’m tired—going to hinder my athletic performance or development?

Personally, I believe that “good form” for any athletic activity is “that form which allows us to express greater athletic power.” That’s how it’s defined across martial arts, baseball, the decathlon, and marbles. That should be how we define it in running too.

When a forefoot strike results from all the correct physiological and gait factors, a greater proportion of the stance will be spent on the forefoot, meaning that a greater proportion of the stance phase will go into force production. The stance is shorter overall, and the speed is faster. Is this stride type more costly (and does it produce its own set of injuries)? Maybe, possibly. Sure.

Do certain distances place such a burden on people’s endurance—even that of elite athletes—that they opt out of the “power producing” stride type completely? That’s the billion-dollar question, and given the answer, we might find that it is completely within reason to adopt a hybrid stride or even a heel strike at certain distances, full stop. (Or, you know, we could just walk).

Great form (and great technique) are expenses of energy, both immediate and in terms of time and training. But achieving them will facilitate efficiency at a higher athletic level: we’ll expend more energy, but we’ll be able to apply a greater percentage of that energy towards the achievement of our athletic goals.

The Tales of Forgotten Subsystems, part III: aerobic respiration, a.k.a The Krebs Cycle.

What if I told you that by running at a lower intensity, you could boost your running efficiency by 600%?

You’d think I was lying.

Well, I’m not. That’s exactly what happens when we run at the right intensity. When we’re burning sugars anaerobically, the sugar only gets partially processed by the cell, and out comes lactate. But when we burn them aerobically, that lactate goes through another process: The Krebs Cycle.

Continue reading The Tales of Forgotten Subsystems, part III: aerobic respiration, a.k.a The Krebs Cycle.

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.

Running form of elite female runners—Analyzed!

I’m posting about a great video I found on YouTube, which analyzes the most important gait components of elite female marathoners. The author of the video analyzes the things that make or break someone’s stride, race, or body.

Here’s the link.

Watch it; it’s well worth your while!

Key points:

  • Runners need muscle resilience in order to maintain tension in the tendons.
  • The lower the amount of force produced by muscle contraction, and the more it is produced by passive tendon release, the more powerful the runner will be.
  • Certain types of gait (gliders vs. gazelles) will aid in efficiency, and boost speed.

Pain is NOT weakness leaving the body.

At one point or another, we’ve all been given those well-intentioned pieces of advice: push through it. Pain is inevitable. Not really, no. Pain is the body’s way of telling our conscious faculty—our “executive control”—that something is wrong. The sensation of pain happens so that we are aware of what is making us stop, so that we can consciously pick activities that won’t damage whatever is hurting.

Instead, we tune out the pain. We ignore what’s going on—and by doing so we become incapable of changing the conditions that led to pain in the first place. And the culprit is that well-intentioned advice: pain is weakness leaving the body.

Continue reading Pain is NOT weakness leaving the body.

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.”