Tag Archives: Running

Gait control, running experience, and injury.

One of the constant grievances that I have towards classical running coaching is that beginner runners are treated like “mini-pros.” For novice runners, coaches typically use a scaled-down version of the training that elite runners do. The overall strategy is to develop speed, power, and endurance by periodizing training. Little attention is given to gait consistency or gait characteristics.

This is a problem: Learning how to run isn’t the same as training how to run. For the sake of everyone’s knees, it’s time we incorporated this knowledge into how we coach.

I run a systems thinking blog because I’m interested in, well, systems. A multitude of scientists have been using dynamical systems theory to study the fluctuations in a runner’s stride. They’ve had two very interesting findings: the first is that fluctuations in stride interval—the amount of time between footstrikesbecome reduced with increased experience and speed. (This reduction is referred to as “long-range correlations”—that previous steps are more similar or correlated with subsequent steps.)

This seems obvious: when we get more experience, our movements get more consistent, less variable—better trained.

The other finding is that that fluctuations in the stride also decrease when there is injury present. In other words, long-range correlations also increase.


As Nakayama et. al. rightly point out, “the findings that long-range correlations can be decreased as a result of flexible and adaptive motor control utilizing rich information and at the same time as a result of less flexible control due to pathological states or aging seems confusing.”

Yes it does—until you look at the particular claims involved.

The study that claims that variability decreases with experience and speed was studying stride interval. On the other hand, the study that claims that variability increases was studying biomechanic characteristics and particular tissues. Why is this important?

Because there are two different requirements to be satisfied here. Gravity, the force that causes us to accelerate towards the ground, is a constant. This means that there is an optimum time for the human body to be suspended in the air, with the goal of maximizing flight time but reducing landing velocity. Typically, this means a stride rate of ~180 steps per minute. In other words, there is a really good reason for why stride rate would become more constant with experience.

On the other hand, if our particular kinematics—the characteristics of our motion—can’t (and won’t) change, we are going to repetitively stress the same tissues over and over, resulting in injury. Think of it this way: when we start out running, only a few muscles are strong and used to moving together. As we become more practiced, more muscles and body parts become integrated into the stride, and our brain becomes comfortable with a wider array of movements.

J. Hamill et. al. corroborate this: “An optimal solution [means] that no soft tissue would be repeatedly stressed. The healthy state, therefore, is one in which no tissue is repeatedly stressed which results from the relatively greater variability of joint couplings.”

Gaining experience essentially means that we gain greater control. When you’re doing target practice with a rifle, this means that you have to reduce motion—hold the rifle steady. But when you’re running, this means that you’re interacting with variable terrain for a long time.

In other words, not only does your brain have to adapt every landing slightly differently, but it has to do so with control. It’s not enough to make every stride different just to spread out the wear and tear—this has to be done in a way that recognizes the differences in substrate, inclination, etc.

To simplify this and bring it back to coaching, this means that control takes time and practice. Furthermore, this adds evidence to the idea that increased control makes you less likely to be injured. What should coaches be teaching those who are learning to run? Control.

If you’re new to running, this means that it’s extremely important to take it easy, and do first things first. That’s why I always recommend jumping rope as a way to get comfortable with gravity. Also, look for a strength/stability program for runners containing exercises like these, presented by P.A.C.E. coach and strength training guru Dr. David McHenry.

If you want to reduce your risk of injury, get control. This takes time. Until you have control, and you’ve developed substantial speed and even greater endurance based on that control, you’re not ready to run a marathon.

Don’t train with your eye on today’s finish line. Train with your eye on next year’s.

Eli Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints in running coaching: can we reliably create sustained athletic achievement in runners?

“Sustained athletic achievement” is a phrase seldom heard when talking about runners. By now, nobody needs to quote the staggering injury statistics in Western running populations: According to an epidemiological study, there are 2.5 to 12.1 injuries for every 1000 hours of running. 20 to 70% of those injuries are recurring, and 30 to 90% of those injuries result in a reduction in training.

Is this because running is inherently injurious? Probably not—and some would argue that we’re in no position to know: the rates of injury aren’t due to the fact that we’re running, but instead due to the fact that we’re running unprepared. In Movement, Gray Cook writes that “many times, the activity gets the blame when the blame should be placed on the poor foundation the innocent activity was placed upon.”

Let’s translate this: are our calves mobile and strong? Are our hips stable? Are our flexors and extensors working well together with our abductors and adductors? These are questions that runners typically only ask themselves after an injury or ten.

Whenever we train an athletic activity such as running, it’s important to figure out what might hold our training back, rather than just going out to hit the pavement and hope for the best. There is a theoretical framework that may provide us with a systematic way of finding solutions to these widespread problems: Eli Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints (TOC).

At the general level, the Theory of Constraints consists of 5 steps:

  1. Identify the system’s constraint.
  2. Decide how to exploit the system’s constraint.
  3. Subordinate everything else to the above decision.
  4. Elevate the system’s constraint.
  5. Find the new constraint.

In Critical Chain: the theory of constraints applied to project management, Graham K. Rand writes: “The system’s constraint is the part of the system that constrains the objective of the system.”

Overuse injuries in running are rarely generalized. In other words, it’s always something specific: either a bad knee, or shin splints, or plantar fasciitis is stopping us. In other words, that’s the constraint that doesn’t let us log more miles.

A lot of us are really good at doing the first two steps. We already identified the constraint (at least superficially speaking)—say it was a tight IT band. Then comes step two: deciding how to exploit the system’s constraint. We roll out our tight IT band, so that we can log as many miles as possible.

But a lot of us don’t get past step 2: we keep logging miles and more miles, until our IT band is so sore that we can’t run at all. Doing step 3 would mean figuring out how many miles we can run without injury. Here’s the problem: if we actually did an honest assessment, the answer would typically be “not many.” Certainly not enough to train for a marathon, probably just enough to train for a 10k.

Which brings up to step 4. We’re trying to train for a marathon—or train for a fast 5k—and this IT band doesn’t let us go far or fast. What do we need to do? Elevate the system’s constraint. Otherwise, that tight IT band won’t let us develop the speed or endurance we need for our event.

When you look at the problem of athletic development broadly, it doesn’t make much sense to spend time and effort developing endurance when a problematic knee or IT band isn’t letting you progress.

In Critical Chain, Eli Goldratt writes: “What property typifies the chain? It is the strength of the chain. If one link breaks, just one link, the chain is broken. The strength of the chain drops to zero.”

This is the tired story of overuse injuries and recurring injury in runners. We often sideline ourselves by running through injury. We break the chain, instead of strengthening it.  We try to increase our endurance, when ironically our present endurance may be greater than we know—but we can’t experience it, given that the system is constrained by a malfunctioning part.

We should always focus on the weak link. “Remember,” Goldratt writes. “You are not really interested in my link. You are interested in the chain. If I made my link stronger, how much did I improve the strength of your chain? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

In previous posts, I’ve alluded to the possibility that “the plateau” may be deeply related to the flawed thinking that Goldratt attempts to correct: perhaps the case is that we’re training endurance when the constraint of the system is strength, or hip stability. We don’t see gains in endurance because we don’t address the constraint, and we perceive that we “plateaued.”

What’s the problem? Why did we miss the constraint?

The problem, Goldratt proposes, may be in our ideas and in our personal culture. A typical assumption in project management is that “the only way to achieve good global performance (is through good local performance everywhere.” Although this idea seems to make sense at face value, Goldratt disagrees: “The fact that so many managers and almost all our systems are based on this assumption is regarded by TOC as the core problem…”

Project management and athletic training are not so far apart: the same problem is present in both. Look at your training plan.Most athletic programs look for good local performance everywhere. Chances are that your training plan is similar to many other training plans: do fartlek, strength training, endurance, cardio.  The mainstream philosophy is to hit every side of the problem, all at once. Of course this works, in the sense that the body develops, but does it work well?

By the best standards, probably not. And if you keep getting sidelined by injury, certainly not.

I hope to have shown that the principles provided by the Theory of Constraints can be easily adapted to create a system for athletes and coaches, by which they can jointly achieve two objectives that are typically at odds with each other: injury prevention/management and athletic development. Applying the Theory of Constraints to athletic coaching may allow us to define athletic development in such a way that these two objectives cease to be in conflict. I believe that on a deep level, this conflict of interests is the likeliest culprit of the staggering running injury statistics. Settling it will benefit athletes, coaches, and the running culture in general.

I’ll devote my next post to fleshing out the details of this conflict of interest (and how to resolve it).

Descriptive vs. prescriptive in running.

When I read articles about running, I often come across phrases like “no single foot-strike pattern is representative of the entire running population.” True enough, but it doesn’t really help runners: all it does is describe the present state of affairs of the running population.

The problem that I see with this is that many people—many scientists, even—take this descriptive observation about the world and turn it into a prescriptive one. Within their statement is a hidden interpretation (shown in italics):

 “No single foot-strike pattern is representative of the entire running population. Therefore, no single foot-strike pattern should be adopted as a baseline gait for a human population.”

Why is this problematic? Let me give you another example—one that we’re all comfortable with.

Let’s suppose that we did the very same research, only about how people lift heavy objects. Statistically, our findings would be similar to running; as researchers, we’d be prompted to say: “no single lifting pattern is representative of the entire human population.” In other words, we’d make our analysis, and see that some people lift objects by bending at the waist, and others lift objects by bending at the hips.


The difference, of course, between running and lifting heavy objects is that we have a clinical standard for lifting. We know that bending from the waist is a bad idea for virtually any human out there. There are only three options for lifting objects, and when you really think about it, there’s only one:

  1. Bend from the waist to lift a heavy object and get injured
  2. Bend from the waist and only pick up light objects without injury
  3. Bend from the hips (correctly) to lift heavy/light objects without injury

In light of this knowledge, let’s review the following statement: “no single lifting pattern is representative of the entire human population. Therefore, no single lifting pattern should be habitually adopted as a baseline lifting pattern for a human population.” This statement seems ridiculous, and kind of insistently missing the point.

But we should keep in mind that the reason it seems ridiculous is because we have a clinical standard for lifting heavy objects, namely, to minimize trunk flexion throughout the lifting action.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that midfoot/forefoot striking is better than rearfoot-striking (although it certainly sets me up to make that argument).  What it does mean is that descriptive observations about a population’s habits tell us very little about what that population should be doing. They only tell us much about what it is doing. And what we do know is that given the stratospheric injury rates for runners, the running population is doing something wrong.

We need a clinical standard for running. In order to get one, the first step is to stop interpreting descriptive statements as if they were prescriptive ones.

UPDATE: Here are a couple of good articles on how foot-strike could be a function of running speed. This all adds to the question: what should the clinical standard be—which part of our foot lands first? Probably not. But we need a standard. There are a few ideas out there, but I’ll leave that for another post.

Deconstructing the Plateau: Part 2

When our athletic ability plateaus, and we no longer see the gains in speed, strength, or endurance that we used to see before, we tend to increase our training volume: more hill repeats, more squats, more miles.

Training like this is rarely the right answer. The human body is a phenomenally complicated system—those of us who have been chronically overtrained and injured know that for a fact.

Obvious, straightforward approaches aren’t enough for a system like this. Sure, there are parts that are plainly related to particular abilities: fast-twitch muscle fibers, sugar and ATP to speed, slow-twitch muscle fibers, lungs, fat, and mitochondria to endurance, and muscle size and maximal effort to strength. But ultimately, we need to appreciate the behavior of the system as a whole, and tailor our training to the system as a whole.

If we want to achieve this, there is no idea more important to understand than the systems thinking notion known as emergence.

Emergence addresses the fact that a whole is larger than the sum of its parts: while the parts of a particular system, whether they be atoms, muscles, cars, or people, have properties of their own—atoms are vibrating at certain rates, muscles can be strong or weak, cars can be fast or slow, and people can be skeptical or not—when you put these parts together into a system, you get properties that apply only to the system, and not to the parts.

In other words, these properties emerge from the interaction of the parts, and therefore, of their organization into a system.

These are called emergent properties.

Solidity, for example, is an emergent property. A liquid becomes a solid when the molecules that compose it get colder (and therefore closer together) and move beyond a certain temperature threshold. Nothing happened to the molecules themselves. But the changing nature of their interaction changed a property that expressed itself in the system of molecules: that system went from being a liquid to being a solid.

In the same fashion, speed, strength, and endurance are emergent properties of the human body in the athletic domain. How so? Even if one muscle is strong, fast, and possesses good endurance, it can’t express that speed, strength, or endurance unless the rest of the body’s faculties—opposing muscles and circulatory, endocrine, and nervous system, to name a few—are also functioning properly and interacting correctly with each other.

What does this tell us?

That the particular capabilities of particular muscles or internal bodily systems don’t matter as much as the proper interaction between those systems.

To develop greater endurance, it is not enough, for example, to train simply the aerobic engine (even if you think of the “aerobic engine” as comprising the lungs, blood vessels and capillaries, diaphragm, all the way down to the mitochondria). Bone, tendon, fasciae, and even the fluid sacs around the joint must be developed enough to withstand the added use made possible by a more powerful aerobic system.

Without developing these systems—and others—together with each other, and ensuring that they are equally balanced and capable of interacting with each other at the highest level of performance, we’ll see our increases in athletic ability slowly grind to a halt.


In a previous post I mentioned how different variables—say, the power of different bodily systems—go from being apparently unrelated to being frustratingly interrelated as we develop the system’s capabilities:

“The perceived set of independent variables changes to a formidable set of interdependent variables. Improvement in one variable would only come at the expense of the others.”

-Jamshid Gharajedaghi

That is essentially what is happening here: as we develop the cardiovascular system, the musculoskeletal system, or the nervous system, we find that further increases in our cardiac output, muscle power, or ability to concentrate lead us down a problematic path. If we develop too much capability in one of these domains, without training others, we’ll end up creating conditions—like running too many miles on untrained calves—that will end up destroying our athletic ability.

But there’s more to this than just training each given component, and more to it than even training them to match each other’s capabilities. As I mentioned above, systems aren’t really built from parts; they’re built from interactions. So we must train the ability of the different parts to interact with each other.

To name one common example of what happens when we don’t, there is the Valsalva manuever, which consists of holding our breath when we exercise. We do this because of a dysfunction of the deep muscles of the hip and the spine, and their inability to work together with the diaphragm. The Valsalva manuever can raise thoracic blood pressure to dangerous levels, and put the athlete’s life at risk.

It is typical to see runners with hip/spine dysfunctions hold their breath every few steps, or time their breath to the landing of a particular leg. This has the potential to exacerbate a whole bunch of gait problems, not to mention the loss of speed, power, and endurance, and the effort implied in having to overwork the lungs to make up for the dysfunction at the hip and the spine.

This, or some form of it, is typically why as runners and athletes we plateau. We can’t move forward with our development: the components themselves are preventing each other’s ability to evolve.

The underlying problems must be resolved, but above all, the functioning of these systems must be synchronized. They must interact; their functioning must assume that the other system is also at play.

When we achieve this with more and more of the body’s components we will observe dramatic increases in the emergent properties of the athletic body: speed, strength, and endurance.

Deconstructing the plateau: part 1

All too often, as runners and athletes we hit a “plateau”—a period of time where we don’t improve, and where increased training seems to shove us into a downward spiral of overtraining and injury. Rinse and repeat. Thanks to our own overactive imagination, or to the whispers of the running superego, we conclude that it’s our genes. Our genes just won’t let us. Continue reading Deconstructing the plateau: part 1

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.

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.

A culture of injury

The endurance running hypothesis submits that humans evolved as desert persistence hunters—fast, long-distance running machines. Contemporary research has found no relationship between running and knee osteoarthritis. And the Tarahumara—the Mexican tribe of running people also known as rarámurihabitually run hundreds of miles per week while sustaining only a modicum of injuries. All of this raises the following question:

Why do we continue to insist that running is bad for the knees?

The most immediate answer is that, for a critical mass of westerners, running has actually created a variety of musculoskeletal and metabolic problems, enough so that it’s gotten a bad rap. However, especially in light of the above data, this doesn’t mean that running is bad. What it does mean is that we’re doing something fundamentally wrong.

Like most systemic problems, it has more than one source. Consider this: not only do we run in biomechanically disadvantageous ways, but we’ve done that for so long that the cultural consciousness has internalized this as the notion that running is somehow inherently injurious. Once this idea has been internalized, we lose any incentive, and any reason, to change incorrect patterns of motion. Because we’ve operated for so long under this conclusion, chronic injury and dysfunction becomes not only the standard, but also the norm.

However, it does more than that: chronic injury becomes the badge of the runner—a badge worn with pride. It is at this point that the culture of injury becomes fully cemented. If you aren’t injured, you’re not a “real” runner; you don’t share the burdens that we all share. You don’t go through the constant rite of passage that we all go through. You’re an anomaly, an exception. You’re special. Good for you.

With most runners, injury is the way of the world. Injury is a self-fulfilling prophecy that has everyone singing its virtues. If you aren’t injured yet, you keep training. It’s almost as if you look for injury. Why? Well, because if running is inherently injurious, if you’re not injured, you’re not doing it right. If you don’t have to constantly stretch and rehabilitate and ice and elevate, maybe it’s time to train a little harder.

So, what do we have here? A self-fulfilling prophecy, one which for the majority usually removes the possibility of running completely pain and injury free. The world in which we don’t have to RICE it up all the time, and foam roll our IT band isn’t one we’re used to considering.

Think that this world is a fantasy? Return to the evidence above. You’ll likely find that your skepticism is far more a function of the story we’ve been telling ourselves (and the socio-athletic system that’s emerged from it) than a function of the actual capabilities of your particular human body.

The first step to change this feedback loop is not, of course, to just go out and try to run like the rarámuri. That would be silly. Mere wishful thinking cannot ever replace good biomechanics and great training volume over the course of a lifetime, not to mention the benefits of being steeped in a culture of running. Most of us don’t have that, and never will.

But what we could do is to believe that it can somehow be different. We can believe that, given the evidence above, it makes sense to try and create the world in which we’re not plagued by injury, and beset by the notion that it is somehow an inevitability. Once we believe that, we can realize how antiquated the notion of “pushing through the pain” actually is.

If the plantar fascia begins to hurt, why not change something in our stride so that it stops? Change what? Go figure it out. But the injury is not inevitable. Only the notion of pushing through it—that useless phrase that our athletic culture has given us—makes it a certainty.

Tales of Forgotten Subsystems, Part IV: The Sweating Mechanism.

The sweating mechanism is truly one of the most forgotten parts of the human body. Its influence in our athletic performance is so great that it’s really a mystery to me why more emphasis isn’t placed on training and developing it.

In a big way, our sweating mechanism is one of the things that sets us humans apart from the rest of the animal world. (The second sweatiest animal, the horse, only has about one-fifth of the sweat glands, per unit of skin, that we do). There must be a good reason we have a five-hundred percent sweating advantage over the next-best sweater in the animal world.

And yet, not only do we gloss over this massive mechanism to focus on sexier components of athletic training, but we actively shun it in society. We deride people who sweat a lot, and turn the very act of sweating into a social faux-pas.

Discussing that irony is an essay in itself.

Sweating is one of the things that makes us human. It is intricately tied to a multitude of other traits that identify us among animals: why we have little to no hair covering our bodies, why we have big brains, and even why we stand erect.

In Waterlogged, Timothy Noakes explains how these traits all come together in the human animal. As desert endurance hunters, it was necessary for humans to have big brains, in order to think abstractly and plan pursuits that would last for many hours into the future. But big brains aren’t enough. The air that’s closest to the ground (where most four-legged animals live) is also the hottest. In that hot air, the human brain—our supercomputer, the reason we outclass every other animal on the plains and otherwise—will overheat, and force the body to halt all athletic activity.

So how did we get around this problem?

In two ways: First, by standing up. This not only takes our center mass outside of the hottest part of the terrain, but it also puts our body in a vertical position, meaning that, during the hottest part of the day, we have much less surface area exposed to direct sunlight (than say a deer). Second, by dramatically increasing the amount of sweat glands, we can take advantage of the wind. Because our skin is uncovered, sweat lets the wind take heat directly from our skin, resulting in massive convective heat loss that other animals just can’t match.

From "Waterlogged: The Serious Problem of Overhydration in Endurance Sports" (Noakes, 2012).
From “Waterlogged: The Serious Problem of Overhydration in Endurance Sports” (Noakes, 2012).

(When an animal’s skin is covered by fur, the majority of their body heat remains trapped in that fur layer, and never gets exposed to the wind). In other words, while most animals were “designed,” if you will, for heat retention, we humans were “designed” for heat loss. Talk about natural athletes.

Thanks to this confluence of extraordinary adaptations, we can bring the rest of the features of the human body—our pack dynamics, our nimble physique, our massive aerobic engine, and the supercomputer that allows for productive, recursive symbolic manipulation (the human brain)—to bear on the hunt.

Given all of this, it’s amazing that we think of ourselves as frail, sedentary creatures. We are the athletes of the animal world, being able to run down just about every ungulate but camelids (llamas, camels, etc.) because we can’t drink saltwater (while most desert ungulates can), because we choose slow (and relatively inefficient) two-legged propulsion over quick and efficient four-legged propulsion, and because we play hardball with the desert climate—betting our internal water on the idea that we’ll be able to chase down that deer and still be able to replenish the water we lost. We take all of these apparent disadvantages and use them to our advantage.

And we can run down these “athletic” animals because our brains use 20% of our oxygen and 16% of our energy. (Comparatively, the brains of other mammals use between 2 and 10% of their total energy).

The powerful sweating mechanism lets humans act like that annoying poker player a lot of us know—while everyone else at the table is betting in a friendly, conservative manner, they’re changing the rules, out to make money, constantly going all-in.

Our sweating mechanism lets us fundamentally change the game. While other animals are stuck playing conservatively, trying to lower their body heat in a body designed for scarcity—a body that is all about water retention and heat retention (to save energy in the long run)we humans exploit this conservative game: we force animals to play by our rules.

It’s just like that poker game: because other animals can’t spend water fast enough, we humans play our aggressive game, betting that they’ll run out of chips before we do.

Next time we run in the heat, let’s remember this. When it’s so hot that running becomes uncomfortable, let’s remember that by unlocking our sweating capacity—by training the sweating mechanism just like we’d train any other muscle—we’re developing a crucial component of our athletic potential. Also, we’re getting in touch with one of the very things that makes us human.