“Truth exists outside all molds, and awareness is never exclusive.”
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.
Outside Magazine just came out with an article that talks about the difference between exercise and training. The contention is that exercise is more of a social activity, while training focuses on the development of the body.
The article cites an interview with Mark Rippetoe, the first coach to give up his National Strength and Conditioning Association credential. Rippetoe believes that one of the problems with the fitness industry is that they develop and market exercises to appeal to the consumer, not to develop the body—and worse yet, they either obscure this distinction intentionally, or are happy it remains in neglect.
I am excited that Outside Magazine is grappling with these distinctions, and promoting knowledge for the lay athlete. Because these marketing and social forces shape and ultimately define our training, our athletic development is at their mercy. The key to dealing with them is knowledge: by “trusting” in an exercise or a diet, we are sure to be playing to someone’s marketing scheme.
Ultimately, simplicity wins out—but it is impossible to market. There will never be an exercise better for developing aerobic power than endurance running. Since it is simplicity that makes it work, no amount of sophistication will do the trick. The same goes with strength: floor and barbell exercises are by and large all you need—and perhaps a simple weight such as a kettlebell.
So the fitness industry has no choice but to fabricate a story as to why so much variety and so much complexity is so important. Buying into this media machine means that while we look for ever more obscure and esoteric exercises, the athletes that keep it simple will be faster and stronger—and the reasons for their speed and power will remain completely obscure to us: the media veil that the fitness industry succeeded in putting over our eyes filters those reasons out of our awareness.
As Bruce Lee said:
“It’s not about the daily increase, but the daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.”
He said this for a reason. It’s up to each of us to explore why.
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!”
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.
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.”
I believe that the only way to be as fast as I wish I am, is to think myself exactly as strong as I actually am. I constantly overreach, and even more often arrogate capabilities to myself that I don’t actually have.
Want to know how I get injured?
I blind myself to the interface between my body and the world, and I use willful ignorance to dedicatedly circumvent certain truths about the world—truths that accelerate at 9.8m/s² (32.1ft/s²), and, in my case, slam into my feet with around 450 lbs of force. Somehow, I have to bully myself into greater awareness, and greater humility about myself and the world. Somehow, I have to find a way to train healthy and safe.
And to that end, I use the term false performance. I invite you to use it as well.
It doesn’t serve us to think of running as we generally think of “sports.” Instead, let’s regard running as a form of expression. When we approach an activity we see as a “sport,” we typically ask: “what’s the goal here? Is it to get from A to B as quickly as possible? Is it to get the ball into the net?” And we put our bodies and minds in service of answering that question.
But there’s a problem with that: if we approach a sport with neural, muscular, or skeletal issues (which pretty much all of us westerners have, to one extent or another), our bodies will find ways around those problems for the purpose of achieving the stated goal.
That means that the body will find a less efficient way to conduct mechanical energy through the body, as long as the job gets done. Too much of this and you’ve got yourself an injury.
But suppose that instead we treat running (and other sports) as forms of expression. Then we enter a path of self-discovery, where improvements in speed and power are achieved as a by-product of increasing our efficiency, and our knowledge of the deep principles of our sport.
People typically think that becoming a stronger runner is all about training muscles, tendons and bones. It’s not.
It’s mainly about developing the connective tissue that holds them together.
Runners don’t dread getting injured by twisting their foot, or by becoming concussed, (even though those things do happen). Most “runner-specific” injuries are blown knees, torn ACLs, lower back pain, plantar fasciitis. All these injuries have one thing in common: they occur because the body was subjected to excess repetitive shock.
What do we typically say to this?
We say: let’s strengthen the muscles, tendons and bones (besides the usual “what did you expect? You went running”). But that advice is inaccurate, and largely useless.
That advice doesn’t take into account the existence of what is cumulatively one of the largest organs, whose main structural function besides connecting other tissues happens to be absorbing the mechanical stresses applied to the body.
A few days ago I answered a question by R.B. in this post. R.B. was asking what could be done do to solve a tight hip adductor problem on her dominant side.
I answered that there was a local answer (how to make the symptom better), and a global answer (how to address the underlying cause). The local answer had to do with strengthening the opposing muscles (the hip abductors of her dominant-leg). However, the underlying cause must also be addressed in parallel with the symptom, or the problem will only get worse.
As I was describing how to address the local problem, I pointed out very specific exercises that could be used to take care of it (which I still haven’t posted about). But if we are to extrapolate from there to the global problem (a weakness in the non-dominant leg), we can only have hypotheses, and not conclusions, about what the specifics of the problem are. In other words, we cannot be certain at all of the specifics of the global mechanical problem.
The reason for this is that the body behaves partially as a chaotic system. In layman’s terms, chaotic systems are systems which respond very strongly to very tiny changes in the initial conditions. (Double pendulums are a great example of this). The first time that you let a double pendulum go from a static position, it will exhibit a certain behavior (i.e. spin around in a particular sequence). But the second time you let the double pendulum go from the exact same initial position, the series of spins that it will do will be completely different from the first.
The thing is this: that exact same initial position wasn’t really the same one as before; it was almost the same one. Maybe we would have needed a micrometer to measure the difference, but that’s the thing about chaotic systems—they respond in wildly different ways to very similar conditions.
(The butterfly effect is an example of pop-culture knowledge of the behavior of chaotic systems).
Let’s bring this back to R.B.’s question.
Let’s say that I did indeed properly diagnose R.B’s symptom: Tight hip adductors causing knee pain. But suppose that R.B. had experienced a shoulder injury as a child, which caused tendon damage. Because all of the muscles and tendons of the body are mechanically connected and influence one another (since the entire bone structure shifts as if it were a mobile), that shoulder injury matters both to the global tension pattern in the body and to the brain’s calculations of how it is going to solve the mechanical challenge of keeping R.B. balanced on two feet.
That slight addition to the initial conditions (the addition of a supposed shoulder injury) could make for a wildly different compensation pattern. It’s important to know whether or not that’s the case. The only way to become completely certain is to do an analysis in addition to R.B.’s report of the apparent symptoms. (Medicine practitioners will recognize this as a signs and symptoms assessment).
It’s important to note that because of the brain, the the body a more easily predictable system than a double pendulum, because the brain regulates the body’s behavior. No such regulatory apparatus exists for the pendulum; the pendulum is both chaotic and ballistic; its trajectory cannot be altered from within after it is put into motion. (Hence the saying “he went ballistic”).
The problem with diagnosing R.B. is that it’s necessary that I make a very accurate inventory of the initial conditions (the symptoms) before I extrapolate and ask, “given these conditions, how is the body most likely to solve the global problem of maintaining R.B. vertical?” In fact, even that is irresponsible—which is why I only gave R.B. a set of general exercises that address the whole region of the body that will need to get strong in order for the non-dominant leg to take more of the support.
(Remember that the body is only somewhat chaotic; there are regions of the body designed to perform certain functions). Most of the muscular burden for supporting the body goes to the outside and back of the body. This is especially true for the leg and hip: The largest muscles of the body, the quads and the glutes, are located on the back and sides of these bodily regions.
And it’s not just me that knows this—R.B.’s body also does. In other words, I can depend on R.B.’s brain (that regulatory mechanism), to find a mechanical solution for how to keep R.B. on two feet somewhere within that region. So, by strengthening those muscle groups and muscle chains, we can be reasonably certain that the problem will go addressed.
But for those same reasons, I couldn’t give a specific exercise. There’s no way to know, except by taking that knowledge and making an organized (and hands-on) mechanical diagnosis of the region. Only then can we know what specific effects those particular initial conditions turned out to have in this case.