Tag Archives: athleticism

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.

Wisdom in athletic performance

Knowledge is hidden in vaults. Wisdom, in plain sight.

It always pains me when I see broad, juvenile claims being made in the media, such as the one I saw in a recent issue of Men’s Health Magazine, which trumpeted the alleged discovery of the secrets to Bruce Lee’s mastery of speed. No way. The path to competence may be to engage in certain exercises, and certain modes of training. The path to excellence, however, is in how you perform them—and in order to find the right how, you need to find a why.

In other words, you need philosophy.

See, we know this implicitly, even though we don’t like to accept it explicitly. That is why Sun Tzu’s The Art of War will always be a mainstay in military academics. The why behind a particular strategy, or a particular tactic, is intrinsic to its correct application. Philosophy and application cannot be separated: a different philosophy will always yield a different application.

When I pull out some quote from, say, Bruce Lee, I often see people adopt expressions of fitful contemplation—and then proceed to completely ignore the advice. Why? In my opinion, because they are victims of a rampant and damaging view that philosophy is somehow the frill on an otherwise functional garment.

It’s not.

But I’ve discussed Bruce Lee far too often in the past. So let’s go with another example: a famous quote by Muhammad Ali, on the topic of how he fights. Ali once said,

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

I credit my brother Aaron for the interpretation that follows.

A lot of us—myself included—look at that sentence and say: “ah, cool,” and pay it no more attention. But it deserves that attention. Perhaps we think that Ali was waxing poetic, or he was appealing to his sensitive side, or he was mad, or perhaps just plain lying, to give himself an edge over those poor idiots that took his advice. My brother (and I), however, think that this advice encapsulates exactly Ali’s defensive style, at least as pertains the phrase “float like a butterfly.”


It turns out that the flight of butterflies, and Ali’s style of defense, share peculiar similarities. Butterflies tend to fly in an erratic, random pattern, probably in order to make their path unpredictable to predators—say, bats—who want to eat them. If you study how Ali ducks and weaves, you’ll notice that it is quite unsystematic. In fact, he seems to be taking a hint from the random flight of the butterfly in order to make himself inordinately difficult to pin down. No doubt, much of the success of his defensive strategy hinged on the fact that he was floating like a butterfly in particular.

In other words, Ali’s formulation of that piece of advice was born not of some inner muse, but of deep contemplation and study of the natural world, and of how it interfaces with his preferred art form: boxing.

Ali’s success was a result of his fighting style, which was a result of his philosophy. And that philosophy—like Bruce Lee’s philosophy—was hidden in plain sight. He probably hid his strategy in plain sight because of his confidence that it would go unrecognized by his opponents—they would hear that sentence and simply not understand what they were hearing. Secrets aren’t just hidden in plain sight.

To put this in perspective, consider what happens when you look out at the horizon. Given our body of knowledge, and the way that we understand the world, we see the horizon as evidence that the world is round, while people before Pythagoras, given how they understand the world, would take the very same phenomenon as evidence that the world is flat. The difference isn’t in the phenomena that we see, but how our mindset—also known as our paradigm—causes us to take the same phenomenon as evidence of two different things. In essence, for people that didn’t know how to interpret the horizon, the evidence that the world was round was hidden in plain sight.

What makes the masters masters is not their adherence to a particular exercise routine that nobody’s heard about. What makes them masters is a mindset, a particular way in which they understand their art. And when the rest of us think—and insist to ourselves—that the answer must be in some detail we missed,  (rather than considering that we missed the detail because we’re in a frame of mind that is not conducive to asking the right question) then we generate a situation of self-sabotage: in effect, the best remain the best because they understand that the key is in philosophy, while the rest of us remain only competent because we’d rather focus on something that “feels more grounded.”

This differential in ability is created not because the masters have a particular secret that we’ve missed, but because they have a general secret that we’ve missed. Furthermore, this differential in ability becomes cemented when our belief that we’ll develop our abilities by searching for particulars stops us from searching for fundamentals—because fundamentals are the things that drive us to search for particular details, and to neglect others.

Bruce Lee and Muhammad Ali counted on the fact that their training, their preparation, and their fighting was done under the right philosophy, and that their philosophy more accurately described the world than the philosophy of their opponent. (I’ve written about how Bruce Lee’s advice—“The less effort, the faster and more powerful you will be”—can be taken quite literally on all levels of athletic study, from the psychological to the endocrine to the mechanical).

It is this multilayered wisdom that we need to take into account when we think about why we do what we do. As runners, training pure aerobic power, energy return, and muscle resilience is not enough. There must be a philosophy of application, that helps us leverage that biological machinery in the most efficient way. That is why we have to consider—or meditate on—the full array of the implications of a saying such as “the best runner leaves no tracks.” And if we train under such considerations, our athletic (and personal) development will be faster still.

“Fatness”: an insulting, oppressive, and unproductive social construct.

You always hear, these days, people saying that “the question is more important than the answer.” Well, the more I think about it, the more I agree with the sentiment.

Take for example, the case of “fatness.” I’m not talking about obesity, but rather about the vacuous and unfounded social judgment that people of a certain size and shape are bad—and therefore socially worse off because they are allegedly physically worse off.

And I do mean, allegedly. There are very real problems with obesity, problems which strongly detract from quality of life, especially towards elderhood. However, the social judgments that we make about someone’s “fatness” are usually unrelated to whether they have the underlying metabolic syndrome that generates obesity. In other words, “fatness” usually has nothing to do whatsoever with health.

Our social judgments are based on a visual correlate of obesity, a sort of “best fit” analysis that takes in a wide array of indicators—musculoskeletal, morphological (of their body shape) and possibly even socioeconomic, racial, and political—associated with that person, and inducts from that whether they are “fat.” Notice that not one of those indicators is metabolic.

The only indicators that truly matter, that can truly tell us if their “fatness” is not something more than a social mirage—their levels of leptin, their resting levels of blood sugar—are the ones we don’t have access to.

(Granted, it is possible to make an assessment of obesity from the amount of subcutaneous (external) fat. However, even that test has a huge margin of error, is performed by trained, impartial specialists with the right equipment, and cannot be done at a glance, by a layperson who likely has a social stake in the situation).

What I mean to say is that “fatness” is a bullshit way of understanding people. “Fatness” is not, and never has been, about health or exercise—or obesity, for that matter—(and in fact, part of the reason it is so deleterious to its victims and to society in general is because it insists to be about health). “Fatness” has always been about organizing ourselves on yet another social pecking order. It is yet another example of the intersectionality of privilege.

The argument that fatness has anything to do with health is one big lie, and usually only detracts from the capability of those who do suffer from obesity to do something about it. Thanks to the idiotic confusion of fatness with obesity, we have collapsed a socially constructed category that has nothing to do with health—“fatness”—with a medically useful category that is all about health: obesity. By confusing fatness with obesity, we have created a trap: for starters, obesity has lost credibility as a genuine problem.

Consider the understandable, reasonable (and wholly necessary) reaction from those who are categorized as “fat.” They have, rightfully, called bullshit on the whole game. Because “fat” is not unhealthy, they have exposed the construct of “fatness” as nothing more than a construct. Thanks to its illicit association with “fatness,” obesity has lost credibility.

This intricate web of sociopolitical negotiation wreaks havoc on the strategizing of those who do want to, say, “lose weight.”

The first problem, of course, is that the game has been defined around “losing weight.” In other words, one of the main reasons that people exercise is to distance themselves with the indicators of fatness.

But, as with the case of obesity, losing weight—and maintaining that weight loss—is predicated on a variety of factors: the proximal ones are metabolic and physiological, but ultimately, we see that economic, social, and political factors also play a role.

By focusing on the indicators of fatness, and not the systemic causes of obesity, we miss two realities: that our weight gain is a function of our context, and that our “weight” has little to do with our athletic capabilities.

In concrete terms, focusing on weight loss means that we don’t know if we are destroying our body’s capabilities to maintain that weight loss. For example, excessive dieting has been linked to thyroid problems, and excessive running to anemia and chronic injury.

We need to turn our focus away from such superficial indicators and towards the actual roots of the problem. We could say that the problem of “being fat” starts with a lack of someone’s athletic capability. But as I mentioned above, it actually runs much deeper than that. It begins with a society that frames the problem as one of “fatness,” and focuses attention on weight, or apparent levels of subcutaneous fat, or body structure.

This attention to weight distracts us from what really matters all along: proximally, metabolic health, and ultimately, psychological, social, political, and economic environments that are conducive to quality of life.

In a very real way, everyone is at their “ideal weight”—given the internal and external contexts they are subject to. By understanding this, we can ask of ourselves: what is the root of the problem that we want to solve. Whether the problem is weight loss or obesity, “fatness” will always obscure the answer, and limit our ability to solve it.

The right question to ask is, therefore, not “how do I lose weight?” but rather, “how do I cultivate a powerful metabolism?” Only by re-framing the question and making our efforts fundamentally not about weight-loss (or being “not-fat”) will we actually succeed at our athletic endeavors, even if we initially came to them with the naive intention of losing weight. And, if enough of us do that, both “fatness” and obesity may cease to be the overwhelming social phenomena we know them to be.

Understanding our own imperfections isn’t just for self-acceptance; it may help us reach greater athletic heights.

In every sense that matters, nobody’s perfect. Not physically. Everyone’s body is slightly asymmetrical. We have to keep that in mind when we train: those asymmetries are natural, and we should take them into account. Trying to create the “perfect” body—a body that is perfectly symmetrical—will mean that our bodies are less functional, because part of our biological systems will be devoted to maintaining those artificial symmetries.

A recent article discusses this at length, from the perspective of CrossFit. It makes the point that a lot of CrossFit injuries occur because of too much symmetrical training with an asymmetrical body: since we have a dominant side (larger, more powerful, more easily trained) and a non-dominant side (smaller, less powerful, less easily trained), training both sides “equally”—say, by doing barbell squats that load both sides equally—we are actually contributing to our body’s asymmetry.

We should train our non-dominant side more than our dominant side: when we get tired during a marathon, our form will collapse first on our non-dominant side. Then our dominant side will be forced to pick up the slack. Even if our dominant side is super strong, the mechanical energy is no longer translating properly from our bodies into the ground (and vice versa), eventually leading to injury.

But there’s more to this than just training. Lateral differences in people’s bodies have important effects on how mechanical energy is translated into the ground. When we run, it’s important to push off with the foot tripod (a.k.a the entire foot, with the weight on the first and second metatarsal). However, in order for both feet to do this when we have two different-sized left and right legs, the muscles of one leg need to work differently from those of the other: muscular asymmetries must be created in order to balance out skeletal asymmetries.

A right-dominant person’s right side is typically larger than their left. In the case of their hip bones this means that the right hip will be wider and longer than the left. (Their right femur is further away from the body’s centerline than their left femur). This means that the right foot is prone to evert (rotate outwards) more than the left. Supposing that the right foot pushes off correctly (with the entire foot tripod firmly planted), the left foot is likely to naturally underpronate during the swing phase, which means that this foot is likely to push off with more weight on the outer metatarsal bones.

In order to make the pronation (and therefore the pushoff) equal between the left and the right foot, the relevant hip muscles (usually hip abductor muscles) at the left hip, leg, and lower leg must be correspondingly stronger than those on the right side.

You see this happen in a lot of elite athletes, from Buzunesh Deba’s right leg swing to Haile Gebrselassie’s right arm swing (seen best at 1:47). During the swing phase, Deba’s right leg rotates inward slightly more than her left leg (and her right hip is consistently higher than her left). Similarly, Haile’s right arm ends the upswing with his hand just above the collarbone, while his left hand ends up just below. (These asymmetries are very slight because both these athletes have a very clean gait). Possibly, these athletes’ muscles are pulling asymmetrically in order to compensate for slight asymmetries between their right and left sides. These seeming imbalances allow their legs and feet to translate the mechanical energy generated by their bodies into the ground in the most efficient way possible. Trying to “correct” these asymmetries would likely result in a reduced athletic output.

Deba’s and Gebrselassie’s bodies are quite simply done pretending that they’re symmetrical. Neurologically, muscularly, and skeletally, their bodies are quite in touch with their own imperfections.

I’m making a case for self-awareness and self-acceptance. And I’m certainly not saying that self-acceptance will magically grant you good biomechanics. But biomechanical acceptance isn’t that far removed from the physical acceptance we need when we look at our bodies in the mirror. Not really.

None of this means that “perfect” symmetry is the ideal situation. Dominance is something that happens naturally, in order for us to be able to move the body asymmetrically. Having a dominant hand is far from a drawback: it allows us to write, paint, or to throw a javelin. Neurologically speaking, dominance lets both hemispheres of the brain provide greater computing power to a single extremity, resulting in much finer movement, and much greater skill.

Furthermore, the organs of the body aren’t arranged perfectly symmetrically: the heart is slightly on the left side, and the liver is on the right, for example. Because of how the body is organized, weight is distributed in odd places. More blood reaches some parts of the body than others, and dominance means that the touch, and proprioceptive receptors of some areas of the body are getting far more stimulation than others. The body grows differently in different places, and that’s a good thing.

But some of the most important movements we can make harness the body’s symmetry: running and walking. We somehow need to reconcile the need for symmetry with the need for asymmetry. Because each of us are different in different ways, we each reconcile those needs differently.

It’s not easy to reconcile these things. When we don’t have a lot of experience moving our bodies, our neuromuscular system makes the computationally simplest assumption: that both sides of our body are identical in length, width, height, and weight. It takes the brain a lot of data mining (from a lot of training) for our mental map of our bodies to include our biomechanical quirks and musculoskeletal idiosyncracies.

Training isn’t just about self-improvement. I believe that, above all, athletic excellence is about self-knowledge. Firsthand knowledge of our bodies leads to better, safer, and more efficient training. But it can also lead to a much better athletic experience, with much greater personal satisfaction.

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.

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.

Society, running, and biomechanics: A systemic exploration (and a hint of future topics).

Systems thinking is more than a theory or a scientific trend. Systems thinking is an idea, an understanding that reality organizes itself into systems. All the tiny different parts of reality—regardless of whether you cut up the pie into atoms, physical forces, or currents of social change—are interconnected to one another. They all interact in chaotic, highly unpredictable ways.

Systems thinking was designed to try to explain, model, and predict how “stuff” that seems to be completely unrelated from other “stuff”—like externalities—interact to create highly complex behavior: creating a system. Strictly speaking, a system isn’t built out of parts; it’s built out of interactions. It’s possible to have a collection of parts, but as long as they’re not interacting with each other in some particular way—as long as they don’t form part of a structure (a dynamic structure in this case)—they aren’t a system.

Therefore, systems thinking allows us to model how different “chunks” of reality interact.

Continue reading Society, running, and biomechanics: A systemic exploration (and a hint of future topics).