“We’re so enamored of effort, and we get so excited about how hard we’re working, when the reality is, how well do we perform?”
The question I hear possibly the most often (about running or otherwise) is this: “I want to start running. How do I begin?”
I have to admit, I often answer this question a bit defensively, almost pre-empting any further questions or comments by saying “whoa, slow down.” Almost invariably, I find, people want to be runners tomorrow—immediately, that is. And for the majority of people who ask me this question, who stopped due to injury—a torn ACL, shin stress fractures, chronic plantar fasciitis—the answer isn’t what they’d like to hear:
Slowly. Very slowly. Considerations aside, a 5k in a year. A marathon, in ten.
For most, there’s a lot of ground to be covered, a lot of the body’s infrastructure to be built (or rebuilt), before we can legitimately consider that this body is prepared to run: we’d like to believe that all the complex movements that we make every single day—brushing our teeth, getting up from a chair, typing on a computer—are really as simple as they seem to us.
The truth is that they aren’t. Using a single hand in a skilled task takes an enormous amount of the brain’s computing power, to synchronize all the muscles just so. The brain must find a way, then, to counterbalance the movements of the hand with fine-grained activity in the postural muscles in the trunk and hips. If this is done incorrectly, we fall over.
(Likely, this is a major contributor to falls taken by senior citizens: an aging brain is not as capable at navigating these immensely complex tasks as it once was, and once, every ten thousand steps or so, something gives).
When we run, we’re doing the same: we’re using the body for a staggeringly complex task, one which demands that we maintain balance, and all of this occurring when there are enormous forces at play. Although we humans sometimes fancy ourselves weak and delicate beings, our bodies are powerful athletic machines, whose power is tempered by a superior cortex (in the brain) which micromanages our every move to a degree we cannot begin to fathom. And we exert all of our athletic power against the force of gravity, which brings us crashing to the ground at a rate of thirty-two feet per second squared.
We have to prepare our bodies for that, in a way that observes the enormity of the task. To do anything else is folly.
Any successful training program will have to put first things first. For runners, this means the ability to get the entire body, but most importantly the hip, knee, and ankle regions (this includes the foot and lower back) to effectively engage with the force of gravity. (Lower-body plyometrics, but especially jumping rope, do exactly this). Once you do that, the rest of the body’s mechanics basically fall into place. And after that happens, dramatic gains in ability will begin to happen as a matter of course: it is now possible to sustain heavy endurance and speed training, with reasonable confidence that injury will not occur in the regular course of training.
From this discussion, I draw the following principle: in order to become proficient at any athletic enterprise, we first need to prepare our bodies to engage in training.
You may think that I’m splitting hairs—that training is training, and that’s all there is to it—but I think there is an important distinction to be made here: namely, that any athletic pursuit has at least one overt and at least one covert component.
What do I mean by this?
Take, for example, the case of classical martial arts, say boxing. In order to develop our boxing ability, we need to develop speed, power, footwork, and reaction time. These are all overt components. But there is an objective to all this speed and power: to bring our fists into contact with an adversary’s body.
This is where the covert component comes in: We have to develop the integrity of the bone, muscle, tendon, and fascia in our hands and arms, which translate all of the force we generate into the body of our opponent. Our upper extremities have to be ready for that.
Now notice I didn’t write “strength.” I used a more technical term: “integrity.”
Boxing, like running, is a chaotic enterprise. This means that every step we take is a little different than the last: either the ground is different, or a part of our body is getting more tired, (or, in the case of boxing, our hands are coming into contact with unexpectedly uneven and hard surfaces on our opponent’s body, or our heavy bag).
It is not only important that the muscles in our hand be strong, but also that they be capable of adapting and re-adapting to these changing conditions, and to the massive (and changing) forces that occur. If we look at this problem overtly, and say “we need strength,” we may end up solidifying our forearms (or our calves), and turning them into hard, resistant structures.
But like the parable of the oak and the willow shows us, a term like “strength” cannot be easily defined when the objective is performance. In this parable, an oak and a willow are subjected to hurricane winds. The oak takes the burnt of it: it stands strong, immovable, as the winds pick up and pick up. In this wind, the willow has already begun to bend.
As the winds become inexorably stronger, the willow bends further, but the oak, which does not budge, begins to creak and creak until it is torn out by the roots.
The oak was strong because it was solid. The willow was strong because it was interactive. This should cause us to reminisce in a well-known saying:
“Be water, my friend.”
Like the willow, and Bruce Lee’s metaphor, our strength ultimately resides in the capability of our bodies to interact with the mechanical energy that we generate, and the forces that surround us.
If we runners make our bodies hard and resistant—or neglect any preparation at all—we’ll find ourselves in a position where we’ll only be able to train our speed, our endurance, or say, our VO2MAX, up until our body gives (which it will).
But if, instead, we train our body’s interactivity, we’ll become increasingly capable to interact with the mechanical energy that we generate, and with the forces that surround us.
Ultimately, integrity doesn’t just mean the integrity of our bodies in an of themselves, but the integration of our bodies within a system: when we box, our bodies and minds form a system with the heavy bag and all of its dynamics. When we run, our bodies form a system with the changing terrain.
Once our bodies are integrated with the relevant systems and forces at a basic level—once they are ready to engage in training—we can begin to increase the magnitude of the demands on the system: as boxers, we can begin to increase the speed and power of contact, and as runners we can begin to genuinely extend our endurance, increase our speed, and maximize the level of effort we put into our runs.
One of the most prevalent problems in sports is that people consistently and continually train their compensation patterns. Practitioners and athletes put so much time and energy into their training, and quite often, they’re doing it wrong.
This is where the old saying “quality over quantity” hits full force.
There’s a lot of literature out there on the dangers of persevering though pain, and on the problems with leaving compensation patterns unresolved. Often, when we continue training despite the pain, we force our bodies into suboptimal patterns of muscle use. Because avoidance of pain is an extremely powerful impulse, those habits remain ingrained long after the pain has ceased.
Similarly, when we leave compensation patterns unresolved (and strengthen them by training), we’re developing our body, but along a suboptimal vector. Instead of training all of our body parts to interact with each other, we sideline a few of those parts, and leave them undeveloped and out of the game.
This is a bigger problem than it seems: one of the key tenets of systems thinking is that the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. For example, let’s suppose that our imaginary athlete is compensating for weak gluteus maximus activity with an overactive quadratus lumborum (lower back muscle). Not only will their hip extension on the weak side be, well, weaker, but the overactive quadratus lumborum will likely be impinging on their ability to take full breaths.
Because their breath is impinged, their aerobic system becomes resistant to training. Because their hip extension is reduced on one side, their maximum speed is much lower than it could be, and they lose their ability to exercise with maximal weight across their entire body.
Since these compensation patterns often go unnoticed, our imaginary athlete might tell another “I’m just a slow runner,” or “I’m injury-prone,” never knowing, never realizing, that their slowness (or their proneness to injury) is not due primarily because of some deficiency that is essential to their bodies, but largely because they’ve spent all of their training reinforcing existing compensation patterns.
In my opinion, the most important piece of advice that any runner—any athlete—can take is that athletic ability doesn’t have to do with lung power or muscle power, but with the synchronization between the lungs and the muscles. The body’s power isn’t simply a measure of how powerful individual systems are—it’s a measure of how well they work together.
Let’s give a quick example: throwing a baseball. Throwing a baseball isn’t about arm power. It’s about initiating the motion with one-leg hip extension against a solid object, and translating the resulting force across the torso, through the opposite arm, and into the ball. An athlete with a hugely powerful arm but weak hips (or strong hips that don’t work together with the torso and arm) won’t be able to throw nearly as well as someone who is strong and athletic but uses her body in a synchronized fashion (Mo’ne Davis comes to mind here). To put this claim in context, I doubt that miss Davis could win an arm-wrestling match with my father (who is massively strong even at 60), and yet there is no way that my dad could throw a ball half as fast as miss Davis could.
Back when Bruce Lee was still thrown around as an example of athletic excellence, I’d often hear people remark on the speed and power of his movements: “how is he that powerful, when he’s that skinny?” Even though Bruce lee had an extreme level of muscular power and definition, the sheer speed that he had was due to the fact that his body was extremely synchronized, and the mechanical energy generated by that muscle power could be effectively translated from one part of his body to the next.
All of the masters of athleticism share particular characteristics. It’s not enough to just have the genetics—that’ll merely make you good. It’s not enough to just put in the time—that’ll make you great. To be the very best, you need a special bit of knowledge, knowledge that often seems counterintuitive—how can power not be about muscle power?—and you need to apply that knowledge in training.
Take this quote from Bruce Lee:
“The less effort, the faster and more powerful you will be.”
Wait, what? Doesn’t effort mean that you’re training hard? Doesn’t effort mean that you’ll be exerting yourself more, and therefore moving faster and more powerfully? Sure—if power was about muscle power. But power is (and always was) about alignment. That’s why Lorena Ochoa’s golf swing is so powerful. That’s why well-employed Judo techniques let small women beat much larger men.
Let’s think about this quote in biomechanical terms. In these terms, this quote serves as an inoculation against compensation patterns. Above all, compensation patterns are effortful. By seeking to do the same movement with decreasing effort, the athlete puts herself on a path where athletic development means eliminating compensation patterns, and finding the simplest, most parsimonious way to do things. This doesn’t mean using less muscles. It means using more, in order to shape the body in such a way that it allows the generated mechanical energy to travel in the straightest line possible.
Every athlete is different, and the solution to what “the straightest line possible” means will always be different for every athlete. But ultimately, that’s what training correctly really means, and that’s what separates the fast runner from the slow runner. Answering that question for ourselves is the key to athletic excellence.
“There are no limits, only plateaus.”
CrossFit, in name and on paper, is an excellent form of exercise. CrossFitters achieve fitness through emphasizing the mobility and functionality of the body across many varieties of athletic skill. In my opinion, the most physiologically sound version of a human body is one in which its strengths and abilities are expressed alongside a capacity for sustained, safe, and healthy endurance running. CrossFit doesn’t emphasize the development of the “aerobic engine” necessary for that kind of endurance running. That may be my one complaint against the sport. That aside, CrossFit is as good as it gets.
As a runner, I live with the hopes of becoming fast, regardless of who’s next to me, or where I go in the world. Because of that dream, the training philosophy of CrossFit—and many of its exercises—have become a staple of my training. My simplest interpretation of the CrossFit philosophy is that a single-event athlete will be better at their best event if they are a multiple-event athlete. In other words, ability has to be cultivated across a breadth and depth of skills, for “fitness” to emerge. As the website says:
“By employing a constantly-varied approach to training, these functional movements at maximum intensity (relative to the physical and psychological tolerances of the participant), lead to dramatic gains in fitness.”
It’s there in the name: CrossFit.
Ever since hearing of CrossFit, I do more and more classic weight exercises such as the barbell squat—and have consistently made gains in speed, power, and endurance over “purer” runners. I’ve incorporated jumping rope as the ultimate plyometric and cognitive exercise: the amount of repetitions that you can put out during a jump-rope session do wonders in honing your body’s ability to exert force against the ground, and receive it safely.
CrossFit’s definition of “fitness” is the most useful I’ve ever heard of—or that CrossFit is aware of, too; it says it right there on the website. “Fitness” is defined as:
“Increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains. Capacity is the ability to do real work, which is measurable using the basic terms of physics (force, distance and time). Life is unpredictable (much more so than sport) so real world fitness must be broad and not specialized, both in terms of duration and type of effort (time and modal domains).”
This is a great definition. I can’t visualize a world where CrossFit practitioners would be anything but the supreme examples of health, if that philosophy (and this definition of fitness) were followed to the letter, and taken to their logical extreme. I’ll begin by breaking down their philosophy—(I’ll do the definition of “fitness” in a bit)—so you can see why:
Employing a constantly-varied approach to training. Taken broadly enough, this means that the concept of “training” can easily be expanded to encompass activities that aren’t typically known as “exercise.” Nutrition, for example. Developing the functional components of nutrition would be a boon to the athlete’s net power output. Seeking spiritual, social, and emotional health for their purely functional benefits, is perfectly encompassed under this philosophy.
I think back to Chris McDougall’s book, Born to Run, in which he quoted the kinds of advice that legendary track & field coach Joe Vigil would tell his athletes: “Do something nice for someone.”This is a varied approach to training. And a coach like Vigil would only incorporate it because it helped take his athletes to another level of athletic achievement. (These kinds of “unorthodox” approaches are common across the 1% of the elite: Bruce Lee trained “breaking habits,” and when that became a habit, he would break that one too).
Let’s analyze the phrase “movements at maximum intensity, relative to the physical and psychological tolerances of the participant.” This phrase implies a systemic understanding, in which the athlete is not perceived to be a machine, but a person with a unique reality, a unique set of circumstances, that can influence their athletic output at any given time. This is a call to empathy for of the trainers, and a call to self knowledge for the athletes.
Let’s move on to the definition of fitness: “Increased work capacity across broad time and modal domain.” On the surface, this means that the athlete should have speed, power, and endurance.
But let’s look at the definition a little bit more deeply. Especially in conjunction with the phrase “relative to physical and phsychological tolerances,” I could easily argue that one such “broad time domain” is a lifetime. In other words, embedded within the very definition of “fitness,” as put forth by CrossFit, is the argument that health entails fitness: there must be health if the athlete will be “fit.” Under that definition, losing “fitness” because of a lack of health means that what seemed like fitness wasn’t fitness, but was instead a façade—a social performance of fitness that broke down under the assault of time.
Only in view of that impressive philosophy can this next part be so damn ironic. I recently read a New York Times article critiquing the obsession of Westerners with physical fitness. The article quoted extensively from an interview with Greg Glassman, CrossFit’s founder. The NYT article’s critique of the fitness craze centers around Glassman’s 2005 admission that CrossFit had become a breeding ground for an exercise-induced condition called rhabdomyolysis, which can lead to kidney failure. According to the New York Times article, Glassman viewed the rampant “exertional rhabdo” problem as part of CrossFit’s “dominance over traditional training protocols.”
This is absurd—and not only in reference to a “reasonable person’s” idea of fitness.
The idea that a dangerous kidney condition is a marker of fitness goes against CrossFit’s stated definition of fitness—the potential for increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains. Furthermore, persevering through exercise despite the onset of rhabdomyolysis is a serious breach of the idea that intensity should be measured relatively to the physical and psychological tolerances of the participant.
But wait! There’s more.
According to the NYT article, Glassman also wrote: “Until others join CrossFit athletes in preparing…the exertional rhabdo problem will be ours to shoulder alone.”
You just can’t make this stuff up.
Glassman’s writing reminds me of something I read in a book called The China Study, about the physiological effects of eating animal protein (specifically, of its contributions to cancer and heart disease). In that book, the authors quoted a physician saying that heart disease was the burden of man, and that only “the effeminate” would pursue other, healthier, avenues of eating to escape it.
In these two examples, these “experts” on health have structured their identity around the ill effects of their chosen activities! When the marker of being “a man” is heart disease, it becomes impossible for anyone subordinated to those social circumstances to seek a healthy lifestyle.
Similarly, if it is the presence of exertional rhabdo that makes CrossFit so “superior”—at least in the eyes of its founder—then the presence of rhabdo in the athlete quite naturally becomes the high watermark of achievement. In direct opposition to the stated philosophy and mission of his fitness empire, Glassman has set up a dangerous situation for his followers: if they haven’t suffered the ill effects of exercise, that means they haven’t been training hard enough!
The problem here isn’t CrossFit. It is the discrepancy between what CrossFit proposes on paper and what its founder touts as the “CrossFit identity.” This should serve as yet another reminder of the fact taht there is often an abyss between what a particular training regimen does for us, and what it is supposed to do. Often, the problem isn’t in how we follow it, but in how we don’t—or more specifically, how we overshoot.
If the reasons for which we overshoot are based on a set of social beliefs that we have created around us—that have long since been divorced of any knowledge of the world (or were never based on that knowledge in the first place)—we are treading dangerous waters. Often, we can’t even see them. Not when it counts. We might be able to laugh at those ironies over a couple of beers, but once in the gym, they will consume us and guide our efforts. If we have taken an identity upon ourselves, all of our exertions will be in service of that identity.
And if that identity centers around illness or overtraining, it doesn’t matter what athleticism we have cultivated as a short-term side-effect of our exertions. We will lose it.
We live and train in social systems. Often, those systems do no favors to the physical, psychological and biological systems on which our athletic output is predicated. Our identity—which is based largely on the demands of that social system—will shape our choice of exercises, the intensity, duration, and frequency with which we do them, and the efficiency of our rest and recovery. What’s on paper never reflects the reality of the situation. The social system, via our identity, informs the effectiveness of our athletic development.
Let’s make sure that social system, and that identity (or lack thereof), is the right one.
UPDATE: For an answer to the NYT article critiquing “extreme fitness,” see this Outside Magazine article. I’d love to hear your thoughts and answers to any of these articles, and this blog post, in the comments.
More and more of the newer science seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom.
This trend brings into question everything that we know—and more importantly, everything that we think we know.
Sitting in the armchair, this isn’t a problem. If we theorize about the differences between barefoot and shod running, and never actually go out for a run, never actually pushing the system to observe its behaviors, theory seems like a great idea. It seems like all we need to do.
But we don’t do theory for its own sake. The point of theory is for it to help us in practice. So we go out and run, and if our mental model—our suppositions, assumptions, beliefs, and beliefs about our knowledge—is different from how the world actually works, the discrepancies between that mental model and the real world will begin to show up as pain on our knees.
One of the reasons I love running is because out on the road, mental models accelerate towards the ground at 32.2 ft/s2. The collision between our mental model and the ground is as close to truth as we lay athletes are ever going to get.
Writing this was brought on when I read a post by The Gait Guys, talking about achilles tendonitis, and possible solutions to it. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the way to reduce achilles tendonitis is by shortening the achilles tendon, a.k.a. raising the heel on the shoe.
Why? Simple. If you raise the heel of a shoe, you loosen the achilles, so it’s not carrying the weight of the body anymore. By all counts, that should do the trick.
But that’s the problem. This solution was thought up in the armchair, and never tested in practice. Theoretically, it should work. But that’s because a theory is a mental model: a self-contained little idea of the world. Given the rules of that model, raising the heel is an excellent solution. Now, all that has to happen is for that model to coincide with the realities of the body.
In academic circles, those kinds of suppositions are known as “pipe dreams.”
The body isn’t just a series of simple machines put together. It is a complex entity, built from stacks and stacks of systems, each doing a different job. And the job of one of those systems is to regulate impact force by using touch receptors.
Because that subsystem—the central nervous system—is also at play, the behaviors of the body/system will be “unpredictable.” But it’s only unpredictable because the theoretical model doesn’t account for that subsystem.
When we account for this system, its actual behavior seems a lot more reasonable: in order to maintain tension on the achilles, the body raises the foot as the leg approaches the ground. However, this means that the leg can accelerate for a longer period of time, making the initial contact forces that much more powerful.
We need to understand the systems we’re playing with.
We need to go out and test them, and get a feel for their behavior. The phrase “push the envelope” comes from test pilots: every one of those pilots climbed into the cockpit fully aware of the mathematical model that predicted the flight capabilities of the airplane—also called the “flight envelope.” Pushing the envelope literally means taking the plane into unpredicted territory—literally pushing the aircraft beyond what the mathematical predictions say that it can take.
Dangerous? Yes. Necessary? Absolutely. The reason flying such a safe mode of transportation these days is because a few brave and knowledgeable people understood that there is a big discrepancy between the armchair and the road—between the predictive model and the actual system.
Let’s take these lessons and put them into our running. Let’s push our own running envelopes to see what sorts of behaviors our body exhibits—and then modify our training and adapt accordingly.
“You can’t force training and force another marathon.”
“It took me a long time to warm up to running.”
– Kaci Lickteig
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.
These days, we find ourselves in a multitude of wars, literal and metaphoric. We are always fighting against something. Whether it is obesity, aging, injury or death, it seems that most of what we do is to try and stave off the avalanche of the inevitable. This battle cannot be won—and yet we fight it. But the reality is: we don’t have to.
When the majority of us lay athletes begin to exercise, we often do it to hold something at bay. Maybe it’s heart disease. Maybe it’s something else. In systems thinking, is often referred to as “Negative Vision.” We bring into our minds the image of what we don’t want to happen, and we exercise accordingly.
There are several big problems with this approach: first and foremost, we don’t have a mission in mind—something that we are driven to accomplish. For that very reason, we find whatever it is that we’re trying to outrun constantly nipping at our heels. That is a losing battle.