Tag Archives: paradigms

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.

An analysis of the paradigmatic features of midfoot-striking and heel-striking.

The term “heel-striking” shouldn’t just refer to which part of the foot hits the ground first. Even in the common parlance, it should refer to the collection of neuromuscular gait features across the body that contribute to a type of overstriding in which the heel lands first, ahead of the center of gravity.

When I write the words “heel-striking,” this is invariably what I mean.

This way, we can neatly sidestep the conversation of whether someone landed on their heel under their center of gravity, or only “appears” to heel-strike. Let’s do away with reductionist analyses: let’s make it about something else than just “the strike.” The most widespread way in which the western runner overstrides is by heel-striking.

In a previous post, I reviewed how there is a paradigmatic body geometry to midfoot-striking, which corresponds to a paradigmatic pattern of muscle use. Heel-striking is no different.

When I say “paradigmatic,” I refer to the core components of the stride; to its most generalizable features. For example, the paradigmatic body geometry of midfoot-striking consists of a full-body arch, which begins at the base of the head and ends at the heel.

Establishing the paradigmatic features of types of running strides allows us to observe those features and make reasonable predictions about them. If you look at a runner who appears to be heel-striking, and yet is creating a full-body arch starting from the base of the head and ending at the pushoff heel, you can be reasonably certain that if you look closer, you will actually find this runner to be midfoot-striking. In other words, you can know that Meb Keflezighi’s apparent heel-strike (left), is actually a “proprioceptive heel-strike”—rather, a “disguised” midfoot-strike—just by looking at the continuous arch made by his leg and back at pushoff. (This video makes my point rather well). You may notice that other noted forefoot-strikers create very similar arches:

elite arches m

Because every person has a slightly different body geometry, the specifics of their stride will be slightly different. But these specifics are much more similar to each other than it is usually claimed. For example, in the post previously mentioned I reviewed how, necessarily, for all humans, dynamic strength is necessarily achieved by creating a series of consistent and symmetrical arches with the body’s bone structure. The reason this applies to all humans is because it applies to all structures. The integrity of every possible structure—from the Hagia Sophia to the plantar vault—is subject to the symmetry and consistency of its arches.

From this idea, we can extrapolate that no human can be the strongest version of themselves without creating the most consistent and symmetric arches across the body. Therefore, when you look at the differences betwen midfoot-striking and heel-striking, the differences in body geometry stand out starkly: unlike midfoot-striking, heel-striking paradigmatically breaks the full-body arch that makes the midfoot-striking body so resilient.

There may be a few runners out there for whom a true heel-strike doesn’t break this full-body arch. There may even be others who can land on their heels, under the center of gravity, without breaking this arch. But paradigmatically, the stride difference between forefoot-strikers (left) and heel-strikers (right) looks like this:


As mentioned before, a paradigmatic body geometry corresponds to a particular pattern of muscle use. In the above graphic, you can observe major differences between midfoot-striking and heel-striking in the neuromuscular paradigm of both the extensor muscles used during pushoff (red) and the flexor muscles used during the swing phase (blue). Of course these two types of body geometry load different tissues in different ways. That’s the point.

The most important differences are (1) the reduced iliopsoas function for the heel-striker (depicted by a grayed out X at the hip), (2) the reduced function of the upper back extensors (grayed-out X at the back), and the concentric activation of the quadriceps muscle for the heel-striker (blue arrow at the thigh).

The heel-strikers’s upper leg is in a bit of a predicament: during the swing phase, both the quadriceps (front thigh muscle, blue), and the hamstring (back thigh muscle, blue) are active at the same time. This is a problem because, when the leg is forwards of the hip, the hamstring flexes the knee, while the quadriceps extends it. This means that two muscles of the body which perform opposite functions are active at the same time, pulling in opposite directions. And this is happening as the leg is nearing the ground—during the landing phase—which means that two of the major muscles of the body are fighting each other, and they are doing so at the very moment that the body is about to slam into the ground.

This isn’t a problem for the midfoot-striker: the fact that the front knee is bent, and near the height of the hips, means that the quadriceps is largely inactive at that stage. Full quadriceps activation only occurs towards the end of the pushoff phase (front thigh muscle, red).

Because athletic power is generated through the creation of consistent and symmetric arches, any running body will always be the most powerful version of itself as a midfoot-striker. Furthermore, the body is designed around these principles: because load-bearing structure (the arch) is most consistent when the body is powerfully midfoot-striking, the body is at the peak of structural resilience when midfoot striking. Given that resilience is a hallmark of systemic integrity, this means that a systemic analysis of the body can only basically conclude that the human biomechanical system is operating at its “peak” when it is midfoot striking.

Similarly to the heel-strike, the midfoot-strike doesn’t refer to the part of the foot that hits the ground first. It refers to the constellation of stride components (such as the creation of a full body arch), that allows this part of the foot to hit the ground first.

This post shouldn’t be construed to mean that we should ONLY midfoot-strike. There may be plenty of reasons to heel-strike, such as rapid deceleration, and the opportunity to use the heel bone as a swivel, in order to turn quickly. However, for the purpose of producing safe and sustained forward motion, no type of stride will yield results that are as consistent or as powerful as those allowed by the midfoot-strike.

How philosophy powers athletic achievement: a personal anecdote.

Earlier this summer I ran the HTC race in Oregon, a well-known, hundred-plus mile relay. I was part of an excellent and enthusiastic Reed College team. I was given the more . . . motivating, if you will, leg of the race. It consisted of a set of three stretches—legs 5, 17, and 24—totaling about 21 miles. The last stretch included an 850-ft hill. I engage with running as a form of expression, and not a form of propulsion. Nowhere does the contrast between expression and propulsion become more stark than when a single group of people—each and every person with their own metaphors, mental models, and training histories—run together up a hill in heat that closes in on the double digits.

As was the case on that particular hill.

Now, I’m not the fastest runner out there. And, I gotta say: should precedent and probability have the final say, I’ll never be. But over the years, I have developed my running to be quite effortless—and therefore, quite fast. I like to run without effort, and fully engaged, like a well-oiled machine where every tiny part is playing its part in exactly the right way, all the pistons moving in perfect synchrony, all of the forces which course through my body coursing through it in exactly the right vectors. This is a story about what effortlessness means, what it does for you, and what it feels like. But more importantly I share what are, in my opinion, the most basic ideas of how to replicate it it.

Continue reading How philosophy powers athletic achievement: a personal anecdote.