Tag Archives: athletic training

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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10896588

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).

Ben Greenfield Fitness on Exercise and The Menstrual Cycle

I just read an excellent blog post over at BenGreenfieldFitness.com, on the topic of the menstrual cycle, how it affects athletic output, and how female athletes should harness it to positively influence training. It’s great stuff. Click on the link if you’re interested.

I’m growing more and more interested in this topic for two reasons: (1) hormones are one of the two main interfaces between the brain and the body (the peripheral nervous system being the other), and (2) there’s very little consideration given in exercise prescription to how hormonal cycles in women differ from men, and how that can affect athletic output, injury rates, and training routines. Although there’s plenty of science on the matter out there, I very rarely see it consciously incorporated into women’s training programs. It’s mostly left to women fitness enthusiasts (and not their coaches) to study this colossally important cycle and then apply the knowledge themselves.

That’s a problem. Why does it exist? I’m sure the reasons are at least as sociopolitical and structural as they are about the science and women’s physiology. Asking why this isn’t in EVERY SINGLE TEXTBOOK AND EVERY SINGLE DISCUSSION on periodization of training is just as important as discussing what is missing.

Ben Greenfield also discussed the topic in this podcast. I haven’t looked at it yet, but I’m sure it’s got some great info. I’ll probably address this topic initially in two blog posts: (1) what the science is and what is being done with it, and (2) where the science should go and what we should do with what we’ve studied.

Cool. Guess that’s it!

Running 101: Not the same as 102.

For beginners, running—or rather, training to run—means one thing. For skilled runners, it means another. Running 101 is not the same as 102.

In a previous article, I discussed why it was important for beginner runners to consider that the key to begin running safely (and successfully) isn’t just to “wing it,” but rather to understand what running implies in physiological terms, and to adapt the body to interact with those specific stresses.

The problem is that in a supermajority of cases, running is treated in the very same way for the very beginners as it is for the well-versed: everybody just goes out and runs, does the same types of exercises, and periodizes their training in very similar way. Granted, the intensity levels involved are quite different between the beginners and the advanced, but that’s basically where the differences end.

But those differences shouldn’t end there. It is not the same to train a runner whose run since childhood, whose bone, tendon, and muscle are well-adapted to the stresses of the run (and whose form provides the geometry necessary to utilize the forces involved in the most efficient and least injurious way), than to train someone whose body has no more idea of how to move under their own power, at speed, over variable terrain, for an extended period of time (in other words, of how to run), than of how to fly a spaceship.

Roughly speaking, the difference between the beginner and the advanced runner is that the beginner is in a process of explicit development of function and infrastructure. The advanced runner can focus on developing the larger (macro) structures: muscles and organs, because the infrastructure is already in place.

This second process is a process of expansion, where the further development of infrastructure is contingent on the expansion of larger structures, and not the other way around. In other words, the order of development flips: training for beginners develops infrastructure, and developing macro structures is a result of that. Training for advanced runners develops macro structures, and more infrastructure is put in place as a result of that.

In essence, form must be found first. The body must adapt to the stresses of the run, and develop the power to sustain a baseline cadence that is typically (but not necessarily) between 170 and 190 strides per minute.

That cadence allows us to shorten the time we spend in the air accelerating towards the ground by the force of gravity. Once we develop the baseline power necessary to achieve this, and we know that we have our interactions with gravity dialed in, should we begin to do more “traditional” training.

Only then is it prudent to begin developing speed, power and endurance in the earnest. In a nutshell, this constitutes the much-overlooked divide between the beginner and the advanced.

The first and most important component of form is to achieve consistent triple flexion and triple extension during the running stride. “Triple flexion” and “triple extension” refer to concerted flexion and extension of the hip, knee, and ankle joints during the running stride. Achieving this necessitates that the upper body retain a certain geometry (read: form) during the stride cycle: an arched, proud back, a slight forward lean, and arms bent loosely at the sides.

By achieving this, we can ensure that at all times during the run, the body’s geometry is ideally positioned to interact with the force of gravity, and to conduct the generated mechanical energy fluidly throughout the body (rather than having that energy abruptly stop at all the typical places: the ankle, the knee, or the hip).

That, my friends, is what we call “injury.”

So, what are the components involved in training appropriately?

1.    As readers of this blog are probably tired of hearing by now, my favorite way to begin this process is by jumping rope the right way.

But jumping rope does more than develop flexion and extension: it imitates the shocks of running in a much smaller proportion. It provides an excellent way to let the tissues begin adapting to the stresses, to develop a comprehensive mental schematic of how best to absorb shock and return energy, and to develop the power necessary to begin transferring those rehearsed actions to a much more demanding arena: the run.

However, I like using a few other exercises to lubricate this transition:

2.    Squats with minimal weight and high repetitions.

3.    Box Jumps (both single and double-legged).

4.    Various hip mobility/core exercises; (when correctly defined, these are pretty much one and the same).

The box jump is a particularly cool exercise, since it forces us to triple-extend and then to triple-flex in mid-flight, to land on the higher surface. It provides us a great way to neurologically program triple flexion and extension at higher percentages of maximum voluntary muscle contractions (MVC).

(The mechanics of box jumps and their implications to the running stride deserve another post unto themselves).

All of this said, there is another training strategy that I like to use in parallel with these basic components:

5.    The Slow Progression:

The slow progression is exactly what it sounds like: progressing in the time spent running such that gains in performance occur below our threshold of perception. In other words, we want to be increasing so slowly that we barely realize we are exercising.


The most important reason for the sheer slowness is to account for time. Everyone wants to be a runner TODAY. People want those performance gains now, and those fat losses now, and they want those changes to be sustainable. Well, they can’t have their cake and eat it too—not in the long run (pun very much intended). It takes time to develop extensive capillary networks into the muscles. It takes time to adapt the bone and fasciae to withstand the repetitive shocks of running. It takes time to increase density of tendon tissue to a point in which they are strong enough to take the body’s weight during landing (and returning it to the next stride) without worrying that they’re going to tear a couple thousand steps later.

Remember: when human children run since the day they can stand, their entire young life serves as a slow progression—one that lasts a decade.

What I propose is one that lasts one year: fifty-two weeks.

For the first two weeks you run two minutes, and you keep adding two minutes to your run, every two weeks. (The third week you run four minutes; the fifth week you run six). Although this may not seem like a lot to you—remember: that’s the point—know that at the end of that year you’ll have the potential to be running fifty-two minutes a day, every day.

Contingencies aside, after that year you should be ready to move from Running 101 to Running 102.

Does “strength” really come from the muscle? This is why you should care.

I’ve been reading quite a bit of the time-course of adaptations to exercise, and one aspect has stuck out above all: most of the initial strength gains that we make when we subject a muscle system to exercise is due to neurological adaptations, not muscle growth. In fact, muscle growth only begins to happen in significant measure 4-6 weeks after exercise.

As regards our cultural obsession with musculature, this opens up a huge can of worms. If a big part of getting fit is in the brain—which it is—why do we appraise people as “fit” or “athletes” given their visual muscle tone? Why does our appraisal not typically include the finesse of their biomechanics?

Maybe, when we say we want to get fit, we don’t really know what we’re talking about. (I certainly think that this is the case). And since we don’t know what we’re talking about, our only choice is to center on the obvious: muscle size, and for those budding connoisseurs, muscle tone.

But like most problems with a social component, the buck doesn’t stop there. If we think that the majority of fitness resides in the muscle, when it actually resides in the brain, then our strategies to get fit will reflect our flawed idea of the body, rather than the body itself. Consequently, the only people really getting fit will be those who pierce the social veil—sidestepping the social obsession with musculature—to focus their efforts in training that actually improves the body’s functioning.

And you find yourself in a situation where majority of people at gyms and health clubs, going there to “get fit” only end up spinning their wheels.

Many get discouraged, and only a scant few end up “getting fit” after all.

Those who did, it was likely because they learned something along the way, and their idea of how to exercise changed fundamentally.

Changed into what? You might ask.

Into this philosophy, best condensed by The Gait Guys in this post:

Skill, Endurance, Strength; in that order.

Why? Skill requires the largest diameter afferent (sensory) nerves to accomplish (Ia and Ib afferents from muscle and joint mechanoreceptors); they are the fastest pathways; Endurance comes from larger sized Type I (and sometimes Type IIa) endurance muscle, which are oxygen dependent (aerobic) and are rich in myoglobin, glycogen, mitochondria and capillaries; Strength last, because it comes from smaller, Type IIb fibers, and is largely glycolytic (depends on anaerobic respiration) and is dependent on the other 2 (skill and endurance).

The brain comes first.

If you get skill, you’ll end up with endurance, and then you’ll be prepared to develop strength. The training programs of a wide variety of athletes demonstrate this philosophy, both in the macro and the micro levels. Runners start their training year doing long, slow runs, building skill at a relatively low level of intensity, and getting all the muscles accustomed to moving with each other. Martial artists, throughout their careers, drill first. Focus on form is paramount, and only until the form of a particular movement can be accomplished perfectly does work on speed actually begin.

This is similarly expressed in the layout of a training session: first you do aerobic warm-ups, getting all the muscles up to speed and the brain to a high level of alertness, and then you up the intensity. In martial arts, first you warm up, then you stretch, then you drill, and at the end you apply the training in combat. Not the other way around. Never.

This philosophy works because it observes the realities of the body. Cut back to the gym, where you see a majority with their focus on their strength progression: how fast am I improving my ability to lift?

Now consider that most started out doing bench-presses wrong. They’re lifting more and more, and at a certain point, sooner or later, they’re going to plateau—or they’re going to get hurt. That’s because, instead of working out the skill, which, as stated above, largely resides in the brain and nervous system, they worked out the strength of those muscles which were already skilled.

Had they worked on their form first, their odds of becoming injured would be that much lower.

Runners, consider this: genetics aside, it might be that good runners are good not because they “have good form,” but because they worked on their form first, and their endurance and strength emerged in function of that development of skill.

The benefits of developing a healthy, dialectic relationship with pain.

One way or another, most of us have an unhealthy relationship with pain. Either we’re scared of it, or we try to overcome it. In both situations, pain is the enemy. But our relationship with pain doesn’t have to be of enmity. If we understand it, it can become a great asset in training and in life.

This especially goes for runners: we’ve become socially conditioned to believe that running is just painful. According to society, when you run, pain is gonna happen anyway, and because running “is injurious”—it’s just that way—well, there’s no point in listening to it, to what it’s telling us about our bodies, and figuring out how to modify our running accordingly. Because running is injurious, our body will break at some point, so we might as well just wait until something happens and then go see the physical therapist.

But pain itself can help us guard against injury. We just have to get to know what it’s telling us.

Continue reading The benefits of developing a healthy, dialectic relationship with pain.

The irony of the “fitness” identity: a praise of CrossFit, and a critique of its founder.

CrossFit, in name and on paper, is an excellent form of exercise. CrossFitters achieve fitness through emphasizing the mobility and functionality of the body across many varieties of athletic skill. In my opinion, the most physiologically sound version of a human body is one in which its strengths and abilities are expressed alongside a capacity for sustained, safe, and healthy endurance running. CrossFit doesn’t emphasize the development of the “aerobic engine” necessary for that kind of endurance running. That may be my one complaint against the sport. That aside, CrossFit is as good as it gets.

As a runner, I live with the hopes of becoming fast, regardless of who’s next to me, or where I go in the world. Because of that dream, the training philosophy of CrossFit—and many of its exercises—have become a staple of my training. My simplest interpretation of the CrossFit philosophy is that a single-event athlete will be better at their best event if they are a multiple-event athlete. In other words, ability has to be cultivated across a breadth and depth of skills, for “fitness” to emerge. As the website says:

“By employing a constantly-varied approach to training, these functional movements at maximum intensity (relative to the physical and psychological tolerances of the participant), lead to dramatic gains in fitness.”

It’s there in the name: CrossFit.

Ever since hearing of CrossFit, I do more and more classic weight exercises such as the barbell squat—and have consistently made gains in speed, power, and endurance over “purer” runners. I’ve incorporated jumping rope as the ultimate plyometric and cognitive exercise: the amount of repetitions that you can put out during a jump-rope session do wonders in honing your body’s ability to exert force against the ground, and receive it safely.

CrossFit’s definition of “fitness” is the most useful I’ve ever heard of—or that CrossFit is aware of, too; it says it right there on the website. “Fitness” is defined as:

“Increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains. Capacity is the ability to do real work, which is measurable using the basic terms of physics (force, distance and time). Life is unpredictable (much more so than sport) so real world fitness must be broad and not specialized, both in terms of duration and type of effort (time and modal domains).”

This is a great definition. I can’t visualize a world where CrossFit practitioners would be anything but the supreme examples of health, if that philosophy (and this definition of fitness) were followed to the letter, and taken to their logical extreme. I’ll begin by breaking down their philosophy—(I’ll do the definition of “fitness” in a bit)—so you can see why:

Employing a constantly-varied approach to training. Taken broadly enough, this means that the concept of “training” can easily be expanded to encompass activities that aren’t typically known as “exercise.” Nutrition, for example. Developing the functional components of nutrition would be a boon to the athlete’s net power output. Seeking spiritual, social, and emotional health for their purely functional benefits, is perfectly encompassed under this philosophy.

I think back to Chris McDougall’s book, Born to Run, in which he quoted the kinds of advice that legendary track & field coach Joe Vigil would tell his athletes: “Do something nice for someone.”This is a varied  approach to training. And a coach like Vigil would only incorporate it because it helped take his athletes to another level of athletic achievement. (These kinds of “unorthodox” approaches are common across the 1% of the elite: Bruce Lee trained “breaking habits,” and when that became a habit, he would break that one too).

Let’s analyze the phrase “movements at maximum intensity, relative to the physical and psychological tolerances of the participant.” This phrase implies a systemic understanding, in which the athlete is not perceived to be a machine, but a person with a unique reality, a unique set of circumstances, that can influence their athletic output at any given time. This is a call to empathy for of the trainers, and a call to self knowledge for the athletes.

Let’s move on to the definition of fitness: “Increased work capacity across broad time and modal domain.” On the surface, this means that the athlete should have speed, power, and endurance.

But let’s look at the definition a little bit more deeply. Especially in conjunction with the phrase “relative to physical and phsychological tolerances,” I could easily argue that one such “broad time domain” is a lifetime. In other words, embedded within the very definition of “fitness,” as put forth by CrossFit, is the argument that health entails fitness: there must be health if the athlete will be “fit.” Under that definition, losing “fitness” because of a lack of health means that what seemed like fitness wasn’t fitness, but was instead a façade—a social performance of fitness that broke down under the assault of time.

Only in view of that impressive philosophy can this next part be so damn ironic. I recently read a New York Times article critiquing the obsession of Westerners with physical fitness. The article quoted extensively from an interview with Greg Glassman, CrossFit’s founder. The NYT article’s critique of the fitness craze centers around Glassman’s 2005 admission that CrossFit had become a breeding ground for an exercise-induced condition called rhabdomyolysis, which can lead to kidney failure. According to the New York Times article, Glassman viewed the rampant “exertional rhabdo” problem as part of CrossFit’s “dominance over traditional training protocols.”

This is absurd—and not only in reference to a “reasonable person’s” idea of fitness.

The idea that a dangerous kidney condition is a marker of fitness goes against CrossFit’s stated definition of fitness—the potential for increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains. Furthermore, persevering through exercise despite the onset of rhabdomyolysis is a serious breach of the idea that intensity should be measured relatively to the physical and psychological tolerances of the participant.

But wait! There’s more.

According to the NYT article, Glassman also wrote: “Until others join CrossFit athletes in preparing…the exertional rhabdo problem will be ours to shoulder alone.”

You just can’t make this stuff up.

Glassman’s writing reminds me of something I read in a book called The China Study, about the physiological effects of eating animal protein (specifically, of its contributions to cancer and heart disease). In that book, the authors quoted a physician saying that heart disease was the burden of man, and that only “the effeminate” would pursue other, healthier, avenues of eating to escape it.

In these two examples, these “experts” on health have structured their identity around the ill effects of their chosen activities! When the marker of being “a man” is heart disease, it becomes impossible for anyone subordinated to those social circumstances to seek a healthy lifestyle.

Similarly, if it is the presence of exertional rhabdo that makes CrossFit so “superior”—at least in the eyes of its founder—then the presence of rhabdo in the athlete quite naturally becomes the high watermark of achievement. In direct opposition to the stated philosophy and mission of his fitness empire, Glassman has set up a dangerous situation for his followers: if they haven’t suffered the ill effects of exercise, that means they haven’t been training hard enough!

The problem here isn’t CrossFit. It is the discrepancy between what CrossFit proposes on paper and what its founder touts as the “CrossFit identity.” This should serve as yet another reminder of the fact taht there is often an abyss between what a particular training regimen does for us, and what it is supposed to do. Often, the problem isn’t in how we follow it, but in how we don’t—or more specifically, how we overshoot.

If the reasons for which we overshoot are based on a set of social beliefs that we have created around us—that have long since been divorced of any knowledge of the world (or were never based on that knowledge in the first place)—we are treading dangerous waters. Often, we can’t even see them. Not when it counts. We might be able to laugh at those ironies over a couple of beers, but once in the gym, they will consume us and guide our efforts. If we have taken an identity upon ourselves, all of our exertions will be in service of that identity.

And if that identity centers around illness or overtraining, it doesn’t matter what athleticism we have cultivated as a short-term side-effect of our exertions. We will lose it.

We live and train in social systems. Often, those systems do no favors to the physical, psychological and biological systems on which our athletic output is predicated. Our identity—which is based largely on the demands of that social system—will shape our choice of exercises, the intensity, duration, and frequency with which we do them, and the efficiency of our rest and recovery. What’s on paper never reflects the reality of the situation. The social system, via our identity, informs the effectiveness of our athletic development. 

Let’s make sure that social system, and that identity (or lack thereof), is the right one.

UPDATE: For an answer to the NYT article critiquing “extreme fitness,” see this Outside Magazine article. I’d love to hear your thoughts and answers to any of these articles, and this blog post, in the comments.

The language of “static stretching:” How to identify systemic archetypes using linguistic clues.

Static stretching is one of the most entrenched exercise habits in the western hemisphere, especially for runners. It doesn’t do any favors to our running economy, our injury rates, our long-term development of power—and yet it endures.

You would think this means that we have an unabashed cultural acceptance of stretching, but that isn’t so. No matter how positively we speak of stretching, or how much we proselytize its benefits, the language that we use to describe it (and its effects) continue to carry hints that it isn’t—and will never be—a real solution.

Continue reading The language of “static stretching:” How to identify systemic archetypes using linguistic clues.