“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.
Our athletic potential is based largely on the biological traits humans acquired in evolutionary time, while our athletic horizons are mostly built around our experience of the athletic feats of people in our society. We are not in a position to make judgments about our own athletic potential.
Daniel Lieberman, the chief proponent of the endurance running hypothesis, has continually fielded criticisms that humans could not have evolved as endurance runners, because the cognitive burdens of persistence hunting, such as the need for tracking, would have been too great for early hominids to bear (among other things).
In a 2007 paper, Lieberman et. al. respond to such criticisms suggesting that (among other things), “less-encephalized mammals than humans”—i.e. those with smaller brains—are quite capable trackers, etc. Throughout the paper, the authors suggest that such criticisms come from the observation of modern hunter-gatherer groups, such as the Bushmen. They point out that spears and other hunting techniques are relatively recent inventions (from the early stone age), which fundamentally altered the ways in which humans hunted and scavenged.
Some of the posts on this blog will be highly technical; others will be tailored for the beginner athlete and the layman in systems. One of my most deeply held beliefs is that for a western athlete, performance is achieved through knowledge.
Therefore, my mission for this blog is to acquaint the casual athlete with technical concepts in systems thinking, sports psychology, and biomechanics. As I alluded to in this post, the vast majority of us don’t have the necessary upbringing and the cultural surroundings to “simply run.” It must be learned. It is vital that we not only learn the knowledge of how to run, but that we internalize two ideas: firstly, that we must learn to run uninjured and free—that for many of us this freedom will not just “appear”—but also that learning, that is, developing ever greater and more complex knowledge of running, (and not just stronger muscles), is where true speed lies.
After all, the body has limits. There are limits to muscle power, and lung capacity—genetic ones, even. But limits to learning? Not so much. Our brains, and our creativity, are the greatest equalizers. He or she who can rely on pure muscle power born from genetics, go ahead. But for the rest of us mere mortals, well, there are many, many variables that we can manipulate: food, energy, sleep, hormones, love, how our feet strike the trail, the sharpness of our mind, the ferocity with which we speed by a fellow competitor—all these are fair game. The physical, the mental, the emotional, the spiritual.
There are systems aplenty to manipulate, if we want to achieve excellence.
But we must learn how to use these systems. We must step outside of our comfort zone, and allow ourselves to transform by the weight of our knowledge, coupled with the weight of our training. And with enough time, dedication, and attention, we too will become exemplars of speed.
Let’s not be overwhelmed by new knowledge. Let’s not back away, and let’s not stick to the familiar. Let’s embrace the complexity of the body. Let’s become comfortable with it—and get to know it. The body is a system, and as such it is highly sophisticated. But that sophistication is built out of astounding simplicity. The more that we get to know how sophisticated the body is, the more its predictability, and its hidden simplicity, will stand out to us.
But there is no way to that end, except through knowledge.
(And perhaps through meditation—but that’s another story).
Ultimately, the purpose of this blog is to make complex systems and biomechanics concepts amenable to the layman, and to the beginner athlete. But excellence is not achieved through sound bites. Performance is not achieved through inspirational remarks. It takes time, deliberation, and attention.
And most of all, in my opinion, it takes an understanding of, and a comfort with, complexity.