Tag Archives: shifting the burden

Cheating on Fitness Trackers, explained in systems.

One of my biggest issues with fitness trackers is that they threaten our ownership of our physical development.

“Ownership” is the idea that taking responsibility for something increases our motivation to maintain it, our pride in it, and the attention that we give it. (This is the idea that IKEA uses to rationalize having customers put together their furniture: they believe that it will make them happier with it).

When our fitness tracker beeps at us to get up and walk around the office—and that’s the reason we get up—we put more and more of the responsibility on the tracker, and less on us. In a very real way, the tracker becomes more and more of a nagging parent, while we are relegated to the role of looking for ways to thwart its will.


This is an absurd situation to find yourself in. By making the fitness tracker hold all the responsibility—and therefore all the power in the dynamic—you find yourself being its antagonist, and therefore, antagonizing your own athletic development.

I believe it is because of this dynamic that people put their fitness tracker on their dog to fake miles (or steps), instead of the more straightforward manuever of lying on facebook posts that they write themselves.

This is another classic example of that age-old systemic archetype, Shifting the Burden to the Intervenor. The people that cheat on their fitness trackers have been “shifting the burden” of ownership of their training from themselves onto an intervenor— their fitness tracker—for far too long. Because along with the loss of ownership comes a loss of responsibility, the beeping that was once enough to get them up to walk around now isn’t enough. The use of the fitness tracker means that they don’t have to care as much. The more they use it, the less they care, until one day they don’t care at all.

However, this isn’t a passive process. As mentioned above, there is a power dynamic between the fitness tracker and the fitness trackee. Because the trackee hands of more and more power to the tracker, the loss of caring about fitness is replaced by a guilt associated with not meeting the demands of the powerful party in the dynamic—the fitness tracker. Because all the power has been shifted, it’s very unlikely that the trackee can just toss away the tracker.

The tracker has certain expectations, and they must be satisfied: the power dynamic requires it. And how do these expectations get satsified? By putting the tracker on someone who is lower on the power dynamic: the family pet.

There is another, subtler transformation at play, common to all the iterations of this archetype. The game is no longer what it once was. At the beginning, getting the fitness tracker was about increasing fitness. Now, it has become about fulfillling the expectations of the tracker, in the easiest way possible.

Don’t do this. Our engagement with our athletic development, for it to have any lasting effects, must necessarily be one where we increase our ownership and responsibility, not decrease it.

Shifting the burden, recovery techniques, and systems thinking.

The mainstream of sports therapy and recovery is catching on to the idea that a lot of the most common techniques are actually shifting the burden systems.

Shifting the burden systems are systems that get created when there is a problem that has certain symptoms. Because it’s often easier or simpler to mitigate the symptoms than to address the fundamental solution that takes care of the problem, the symptoms get mitigated while the problem continues to grow (and becomes harder and harder to solve).

Icing, stretching, and using foam rollers are three great examples of shifting the burden systems. While icing can help reduce swelling, it often damages the surrounding tissue, causing even longer delays in recovery. Stretching, while helping muscle soreness, causes muscles and tendons to become elongated, breaking the patterns of structural tension in the body. Using foam rollers, as a recent article suggests, mitigates the pain caused by muscle imbalances (which allows the imbalance to grow until it becomes debilitating).

In other words, all of these systems share the same characteristics: they create “quick-fixes” that seem to solve the problem, while actually the problem continues to grow.

Systems thinking lets us take these three examples and find the underlying similarity between them. When a therapy, recovery, or growth solution seems to work extremely quickly, it is important to lead with the following question: “Am I looking at a shifting the burden system?” Most often, when something works extremely quickly, it is just the symptoms that are being resolved. The hidden problem keeps growing and growing, until damage to the system—the inevitable sports injury—“comes out of nowhere.”

As athletes, we all have to keep a lookout for shifting the burden systems. Did we get too tired, and shift the burden of pushing off from our gluteus maximus to our gastrocnemius and soleus (in our calves)? Did we get injured in our non-dominant leg abductors, and shift the burden of supporting the body to our dominant leg adductors?

These are all examples of compensation patterns. While they may work in the short-term, but ultimately hinder our ability to develop and perform athletically.

Furthermore, it’s important for us athletes to realize that once we have defined what a shifting the burden system is, we don’t have to study every new therapy, recovery, and exercise technique and impartially judging its merits.

For example, a recent article initially referenced by the Gait Guys suggested that a possible treatment for hip pain/reduced hip mobility would be to coach patients into pushing off with their gastrocnemius (calf) muscle. Thanks to systems thinking, we don’t need to look further than this short mention to know that this is a shifting the burden system. The main drivers of the body’s athletic expression are the hip muscles and the thigh muscles. They are the ones that should be pushing off, period (as the Gait Guys sensibly mention). Shifting the burden of pushoff from the hip muscles to the calf muscles will address the symptoms (hip pain) while reducing the need for the hip muscles to remain strong. The hip muscles will weaken over time, and their suceptibility for injury will increase. Classic shifting the burden system.

This is what systems thinking lets us do: extrapolate cleanly and freely from one system to the next. What works in one economy will work similarly in another, because they are the same kind of system. When we restrict the body’s inputs (by dieting), the body will respond like any other economy: it will shrink, beginning by cutting back on infrastructure. Just like economies respond to a policy of austerity by cutting back on public infrastructure, education, and health, the body starts cannibalizing bone and muscle, and starts winding down the functioning of non-essential organs.

Restricting inputs of energy (food, resources, money) does the same to every economy, no matter what economy you’re talking about.

We athletes should become well-versed in systems thinking, to develop a deeper and more intuitive understanding of the forces that shape our athletic expression, and athletic development.

The underlying similarities between seemingly different things should become obvious to us. Rather, it behooves us to look beyond superficial differences in everyday things to understand the underlying patterns and the systems beneath those patterns. That’s what this blog is for.

From maximalist to minimalist footwear (and back): a lesson in resilience, and in “shifting the burden” systems.

The popularity of the trend of minimalist (zero-drop, low-cushioning) shoes has coincided with a sharp increase in running injuries, according to some sources. This has caused a large amount of community, media, and legal blowback on minimalist shoes, the most salient of which is the recent class-action lawsuit against Vibram, for misleading advertisement.

Misleading advertisement should always be punished. Vibram peddled their five-fingers shoes as the solution to running injuries. They are not. They should never have been advertised that way.

But this blowback has created an unfortunate tendency: blaming the minimalist shoes themselves as the cause of injury.

They aren’t the cause. Although this may seem contradictory, it is the fact that so many people get injured when switching from “maximalist” (shoes that are highly-cushioned; often with an elevated heel) to minimalist shoes—but not vice versa—that suggests that minimalist shoes are better for the biomechanics of human running.

This apparent contradiction can be resolved—but in order to do that we must look at the issue from a systems thinking perspective. And for that, we have to begin with the concept of “resilience.”

Continue reading From maximalist to minimalist footwear (and back): a lesson in resilience, and in “shifting the burden” systems.

An internet encounter with static stretching.

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!”

Continue reading An internet encounter with static stretching.

Wearable tech stops us from listening to our bodies. That’s a problem.

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.

Continue reading Wearable tech stops us from listening to our bodies. That’s a problem.

The language of “static stretching:” How to identify systemic archetypes using linguistic clues.

Static stretching is one of the most entrenched exercise habits in the western hemisphere, especially for runners. It doesn’t do any favors to our running economy, our injury rates, our long-term development of power—and yet it endures.

You would think this means that we have an unabashed cultural acceptance of stretching, but that isn’t so. No matter how positively we speak of stretching, or how much we proselytize its benefits, the language that we use to describe it (and its effects) continue to carry hints that it isn’t—and will never be—a real solution.

Continue reading The language of “static stretching:” How to identify systemic archetypes using linguistic clues.

Systemic archetypes: Shifting The Burden.

‘’Shifting the burden” is a classic systemic archetype, which tends to show up in many social situations—including athletic training. “Shifting the burden” systems show up whenever there is an apparent, “symptomatic” solution to a problem—a quick-fix—which seems to clear it up. However, that solution has the disadvantage of causing side-effects that hinder the system’s capability to put in play a fundamental solution (which actually would solve the problem at its roots).

This archetype is called “Shifting the Burden” because the burden for solving the problem is “shifted” away from the fundamental solution to the “symptomatic” solution:

Shifting the burden m

Continue reading Systemic archetypes: Shifting The Burden.

The beginning of a conversation on stretching

Here I share a few excerpts from The Big Book of Health and Fitness, by renowned researcher and clinician Phil Maffetone. (The chapter is titled “The hidden dangers of stretching”):

“It’s astounding that such huge numbers of people, young and old, athletes and those out of shape, have bought into the notion that stretching is a good idea. This view is widely held despite little, if any, scientific information demonstrating that static stretching is beneficial for most individuals, especially in the way it’s usually done. As a matter of fact, there’s quite a bit of evidence showing that stretching is harmful.”

“Clinicians who evaluated muscle function in athletes observed one outstanding factor: Stretching a muscle could make it longer, the reason it increases flexibility—and this resulted in a reduction in the muscle’s function due to a loss of power. In other words, stretching caused abnormal inhibition—a neurological name referring to a less-efficient longer moving muscle.”

“Most ligament, joint, and other physical ailments are usually secondary to muscle imbalance, which consists of a tight muscle and a loose one—you usually feel the tight one as tension or pain while its cause is a weak muscle. Treatment of these problems must be directed at the cause—the weakness—not the tightness.”

Stretching is an example of shifting the burden. Answer in the comments if you can figure out why.

Also, I’d like to hear what you have to say about stretching: why do you like it? why do you dislike it?

The conversation about stretching will be a recurring theme here on this blog; settling this issue and continuing on to train in the right way is, in my opinion, one of the most important changes we can make to the “typical” training routine.

AN IMPORTANT CAVEAT: The do’s and don’ts of correct stretching for typical athletes do not apply for the people who need an increased range of motion (RoM), such as dancers, gymnasts and martial artists. That said, the commonly-held ones don’t apply either.

UPDATE: In future posts, I’ll be discussing the issue of stretching in a very detailed manner. There are certain strength exercises that aggressively increase RoM—especially hip RoM—but I’ll get into those once I’ve posted about the biomechanic details of stretching (and of how to develop “real” RoM).

Given the excerpts I shared above, it’s extremely important that we approach stretching from an deeply informed perspective. Actually, it’s not just important. It’s critical that we do so, for the sake of our musculoskeletal system.

Tight leg adductors: a common problem, its possible source, and some tips on how to address it.

Over on Facebook, R.B. asked me:

Recently, I’ve been unable to go running for more than 15 minutes without experiencing discomfort in my right knee (my dominant side). Even jumping causes some minor pain. It cracks a lot when I flex and extend it; so does the left side but not nearly as much as the right. From my preliminary research on the matter, I think I have “runner’s knee.” It may have to do with how hard I was training for a while (2x a day, running, weights, parkour, etc.) and then suddenly stopped the intensity for a couple of months this summer when I went to Brazil. Now that I’m jumping back into it, it’s been surprisingly difficult to find the right balance. Anyway, I guess my question is–do you have any suggestions (ie. exercises, readings, whatever) so I can get back to running while minimizing the likelihood of injury? I would greatly appreciate it

Before we begin, a standard disclaimer: I am NOT a physical therapist. I happen to know a lot about the body and I’ve solved this particular problem for myself and others. R.B., I would suggest that you consult a clinician, and take my advice with a grain of salt. That said, let’s go at it:

R.B was referring to a cracking on the inside of her dominant leg. This is most likely a malfunction of one of the muscles that connect the inside of the hip to the inside of the tibia on a spot called the pes anserinus, or “goose foot.”

Note that this is happening on her dominant side.

Let’s think systemically about this: Why is this happening? What problem is the body trying to solve?

Because the dominant leg is the one that supports the most weight, the body wants to bring it further in towards the center of gravity, i.e. towards the midline of the body. Imagine that you are supporting a wooden beam on two columns, but one is strong and one is weak. You’re going to want to put the strong column closer to the center, to support more weight. That’s exactly what the body is doing here:

It’s putting too much weight on the dominant leg because the non-dominant leg is too weak.

This is an example of a systems thinking concept: Shifting the Burden.  (In this case, the burden of supporting the body in an upright position is shifted from both legs onto the dominant leg). 

In order to manage that added burden, the body overuses the adductor muscles of the dominant leg, (which pull the leg towards the midline). And because the dominant leg doesn’t come out much (because it has to stay in to support the weight of the body), the abductor muscles, which pull the leg out, get very little work.

So, what happens is that you get adductor muscles which are too tight, and abductor muscles that are too weak.

Now, there are two answers to this question, and BOTH are important. The first answer is global: the system is developing a strategy of how to perform the function that R.B. is asking of it, and it’s putting too much weight on the dominant leg in order to perform that function. These kinds of sub-optimal strategies are what my favorite biomechanics bloggers, The Gait Guys, call a “compensation pattern.” As they like to say:

What you see in someone’s gait is not their problem, but rather their strategic compensation around the problem”

Let me reiterate that R.B.’s dominant leg had tight adductors because her non-dominant leg was carrying too little of her entire weight. In other words, the problem is that her non-dominant leg—particularly, the extensors and abductors on her non-dominant leg—are probably not strong enough. (In other words, the same analysis that we did within the same leg can be tentatively extrapolated to the entire body): If a set of muscles on one leg are too tight, the opposite set of muscles on the other leg will be too weak.
The second answer is local: It has to do with the adductors of the dominant leg. I’m going to post a video about how to train the adductors for this kind of problem in a few days, so for now let’s talk about ways in which we can solve the likely global (systemic) problem.

In order to see the most likely systemic problem, we have to cut across the whole body: if the muscles on the front outside of the dominant leg (abductors) are too weak, it is likely that the muscles on the rear outside of the non-dominant leg (primarily the extensors but also probably the abductors) are also too weak. Let me be clear that these are just the most likely culprits. It’s impossible to know specifically without looking at your particular case. The job of the muscles I mentioned is to hold up the leg—the very task that the non-dominant leg wasn’t doing well the first place.

R.B., I can’t give you a specific exercise for your non-dominant leg. That would be irresponsible on my part. But I can give you a general one:

The Gait guys have a cool abductor\extensor exercise that I think would be useful in your case (for your non-dominant leg). Here’s the link to the video.

What you could also do is this: during the same period (say 2-4 weeks) you are training the abductors of your dominant leg, also jump rope for a few minutes in the way I suggest. However, since you want to strengthen the extensors/abductors on your non-dominant leg, I would suggest that you emphasize jumping on your non-dominant foot. By that I mean that if you jump rope (with both feet) for a total of 6 minutes, jump 30 times on your non-dominant foot every minute.

You DON’T want your muscles to get too tired while doing this; you just want to get the non-dominant leg used to the motion of carrying your body alone.

Especiallyyou want the extensors/abductor muscles of your non-dominant leg to develop along with the abductors of your dominant leg. 

You should ensure that the relative strength of both relevant muscle groups stays constant, or you’ll create another compensation pattern.

Also the reason you want to jump rope during this period is to ensure that the strength is being incorporated into a motion pattern. It doesn’t matter how strong any of your muscle groups are if your body doesn’t know that they should be used as part of the holistic motion pattern. Getting them this motion pattern will allow you to eventually succeed on this task.

The best way to get the most bang for your buck out of this would be to jump rope after the training session for your dominant-side extensors/abductors. That way, they’ll be activated and slightly tired when you jump rope, so your body will be able to incorporate them into the motion much more easily.

Please put your questions in the comments; I’ll address them there.

Thanks for reading!

UPDATE: If something about running is difficult for you, or it’s difficult to get started running, there’s a comment thread going here.