Episode 21- We have no idea what we're doing- The Dunning-Kruger Effect and Coaching


In this episode of the Magness & Marcus show, we delve into the Dunning Kruger effect. You might not know the name of this cognitive bias, but it's something we're all familiar with. It refers to our inability to accurate assess our abilities. Novices tend to overestimate their abilities, while experts tend to do the opposite and underestimate their competence.  Or put in layman's terms, it's that friend who is 100% confident that he's right on a subject which he is only vaguely familiar with.

It's this inability to accurately assess oneself that is the central theme of the podcast. We begin with how this impacts athletes and their racing. Starting with the phenomenon of "clueless" athletes having break throughs because they don't realize who they are racing or that they 'shouldn't go with X athlete in the race. To the opposite effect where our runner who knows every stat about everyone in the race doesn't let himself believe that he can go to the next level because of this information overload. We talk about the power of not knowing using examples from Olympians such as Moises Joseph, who doesn't check entry lists to his races, to utilizing watch-less and feedback-less workouts and having the athletes guess how fast they ran each rep; so that they can calibrate the mismatch between their perceived abilities and their actual.

To end, we turn the spotlight on ourselves and discuss how we over/under estimate our own knowledge and how it plays a role in our own coaching. In what I think is a very honest appraisal, we end with declaring that we have no idea what we're doing. And it's not just us, no one actually does, or perhaps that's just us falling into the trap of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

"The more people think that you're really good, actually the stronger the fear of being a fraud is." David Foster Wallace

Steve and Jon

Resources Discussed:
You're not so smart podcast on The Dunning-Kruger Effect

Although of Course you end up Becoming Yourself: A road trip with David Foster Wallace: by David Lipsky

The Training Grind- Why it's sometimes better to feel bad than back off.


There is one piece of advice that I give to aspiring runners that makes no sense. There's little logic in the saying, and it appears contradictory and wholly unsatisfactory. Yet it works, almost every time.

When the words come out of my mouth, I'm met with an inquisitive look that says "Is he serious?" This scenario has occurred so often, that my reply "Just trust me. Get back to me in a few weeks," comes out  before they've even raised the question.

When athletes make the unenviable jump to " the grind" is when the questions start popping up. The grind is the mileage jump. That point when you are increasing your training to never before experienced levels in the dead of Houston summer. Along with the grind comes the dreaded feeling of sluggish runs accompanied by legs filled with lead. All of the sudden 7 minute miles feel awful. In other words, you feel like death.

The calls and texts come in, "Coach, I feel horrible. What do I do? Should I lower my mileage, take an ice bath, cut my legs off?" They're pleading for answers on how to fix the problem.

My reply is almost always the same, "Just keep running. I don't care if you have to run incredibly slow, just get the mileage in..." You can hear the frustration over the phone as they come to the sinking realization that you are offering no magical cure. But then you get to the fun part, "If you keep grinding through, you're going to feel like absolute crap, but then wake up the one morning with your legs magically feeling great. It just happens."

This is when the phone call goes silent, their brains are trying to process how you can go from feeling the worst you have in your life to feeling great. After an awkward pause in which they have figured out you actually said what they thought you did, they protest, and I give my "Just wait..." talk.

Inevitably, a few weeks go by and they understand. It just happens. It's almost as if your body protests as much as it can, then realizes you aren't going to let up, so it says "shit, he's just going to keep doing this to us, we might as well adapt," and you go back to how running is supposed to feel.

Unlike most things, I have no logical scientific explanation for this phenomenon. I'm sure I could throw some big words together and make a plausible sounding explanation, but the key is that it works. I stumbled upon this phenomenon during a youth spent running 100+mpw in the horrid humidity of Houston, Texas. It happened every summer. I'd go from my mini-break of zero miles to over 100mpw in 2-3 weeks, feel like I was going to die for another 10-20 days, then magically feel good again. What I learned was that if I gave in, took some time off, lowered the mileage, skipped a double, it just prolonged the suffering. It took me longer to get to the point where I felt good.

The whole key was to keep trudging away, get the mileage in, don't sacrifice, just keep grinding. For me, it was 9mi in the morning and 7 miles in the evening 5 days a week with 17 on saturday and 10 on sunday. That was the grind during those days and it didn't vary until I got through to the point of feeling good.

Upon reading Stephen King's memoir On Writing recently, I came across a passage where he suggests the same concept. In writing, there's the concept of the muse, which is supposed to magically come from thin air and allow you to produce beautiful prose.

King's thesis was that all aspiring writers need to grind away, set a target of words to get to, whether it's 1,000 a day or 2,000, and don't stop until you get there. It doesn't matter if it takes you an hour or four, get the volume in. His point was that writers need to go through this sometimes uncomfortable period. If you went through it enough, the muse would find you, and as you got more and more adjusted to it, the muse would show up more frequently.

King, put it much more eloquently than I can in stating:

"But you need the room, you need the door, and you need the determination to shut the door. You need a concrete goal, as well. The longer you keep to these basics, the easier the act of writing will become. Don't wait for the muse. As I've said, he's a hardheaded guy who's not susceptible to a lot of creative flutering. This isn't the Ouija board or the spirit world we're talking about here, but just another job like laying pipe or driving long haul trucks. Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you're going to be every day from nine 'til noon or seven 'til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he'll start showing up, chomping his cigar and making his magic."

The takeaway is in this paragraph. Read it, re-read it, and think about how it applies to your own training (or anything else you do in life). It's about putting yourself in the position for the muse to find you. It's not about hoping for it, it's that if you grind through the grunt work long enough, you're putting your body and mind in a position to adapt and thrive. It's setting up everything around you so that you're afforded the opportunity to grow, whenever that time comes.

*This applies to sluggishness during the base phase, not injury related issues...

Psychology of Doping- Why we're fighting a losing battle-


We're fighting a losing battle is a phrase that is thrown around far too frequently. It's meant to show despair but also to inspire a change of direction. When it comes to performance enhancing drug use in sport, sadly this cliche phrase is applicable. We are losing a fight that needs to be won, if not only for the sake of parents and coaches of young athletes everywhere who need to be able to look into their young athletes eyes dreaming of Olympic glory and tell them that it's possible.

Traditionally, we have fought the war on performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) using a testing based model to try to catch athletes. More recently, the use of investigations and whistle blowers has brought about the catching of drug cheats.

 However, If the Lance Armstrong or Marion Jones' of the world have taught us anything it's that passing a drug test means little except that you are smart enough to not make a blatant mistake. In a BBC documentary I was a part of, a journalist ordered EPO from China and by simply searching on the Internet, took enough EPO to see massive performance benefits while avoiding raising any suspicion on the latest in anti-doping science, the athlete blood passport.

Let this sink in for a minute. A journalist who is a recreational athlete figured out how to stay clean against our most sophisticated anti-doping measure. Not someone with reams of doctors or sports scientist behind him.

A man, simply searching on the Internet.

This isn't the anti-drug testers fault, it's the nature of anti-doping. In order to insure that we don't have a false positive, a situation that would be far more damaging than any other result, the thresholds are set so high for items like the Blood Passport, that numerous abnormal tests get through the gates.

The problem with the testing and investigating method is that they are ex post facto solutions. They are focused on catching athletes after the athletes has reached a high level of performance. In most cases it's a catch them after the damage is done situation.

The success rate of this operation can be judged by looking at the rate of drug positives at the elite level (1-2%) versus what recent research suggests is the actual rate (~30%).

Obviously, that's a pretty large gap, and rather disheartening. On top of that, I couldn't help but notice in athletes who have actually tested positive have few of them admit to cheating. They hold steadfast that they committed no wrong doing. Even serial cheaters like Lance Armstrong come across as not truly believing that they defrauded fans and their fellow competitors. The mindset seems to be that they don't truly believe they violated any moral issues.

On the other hand, clean athletes are irate and can't understand how someone could commit a blatant violation yet show little remorse or understanding.  How could this be?

The problem is a psychological one.

The Psychology of Cheating

In Dan Ariely's latest book, The Truth about Dishonesty, and research he outlines several research studies which demonstrate why people are dishonest and cheat. For most of history, we've viewed cheating as the result of a simple cost-benefit analysis based on economics where people would cheat if the benefit was significantly better than the cost.

This model sets up our current deterrent system, where we try to create large punishments in hopes to dissuade the cheaters from crossing that line is based on this simple model. If we create large enough punishments, then people will think twice about cheating. They'll sit down and do a rational calculation of their likelihood of success plus what the reward was versus the chance and punishment for getting caught and make the choice not to cheat.

The problem is the cost-benefit model simply doesn't explain how cheating actually works.

Ariely points out that we don't function like this at all. Instead, in researching why people cheat Ariely found some surprising results. In most of his experiments he set out situations where people have the opportunity to cheat on tests for rewards. A common set up would be to have individuals take a quick academic test where they get paid per answer they got correctly. In many of the set ups, they have the test takers self report how many answers they got right and get paid on the spot after reporting it. That way, the test takers could simply lie to get more money.

The results were surprising.

Contrary to our traditional viewpoints, they found that the amount paid as a reward did not influence cheating. If they bumped up the amount of money each person received when they cheated, it did little to nothing to influence how much they cheated. Similarly, the probability of getting caught didn't seem to matter either.

This doesn't paint a good picture for our traditional monitoring and punishment system which is based on money and getting caught.

But what about small lies?

Ariely and colleagues found that after crossing the line and cheating once, even if it was a small one, our likelihood to cheat in the future increased significantly. After crossing one line, we're more willing to cheat.  It's the "what the hell effect." If we've crossed the line, what's the difference between doing what we did and taking the next step. It's a steady flow down the ladder of increasingly unacceptable behavior.

As Ariely put it, once we violate behavior, we abandon all control.

Seen in a doping concept it makes perfect sense. Recent research has linked the use of numerous supplements to acting like a "gateway" towards doping. In other words, it's likely that if we start venturing down the path of "Testoboost" or "EPO boost" that it's a slippery slope towards doping. Does that mean you're going to cross that line? Not necessarily, but research shows that it becomes easier to cross the next line as more and more becomes acceptable.

And it gets worse.

It turns out that social dynamics influence cheating. Several recent research studies have shown that cheating is a contagious behavior. What happens is that the social norm of acceptability is shifted. If the line is crossed by others, it becomes a socially acceptable activity.

Furthermore, if it's within our own social circle, such as a team, our willingness to cheat increases even more. If we see a stranger cheating, it only impacts us slightly, but if it's someone within our own inner circle of friends, a large shift in cheating occurs. It gets even worse if an authority figure is the one demonstrating unethical behavior.

Consider the implications of this on your team dynamics or from the coaches standpoint. The message you send and the mindset you establish impacts the teams decision making on ethical calls. The coach, as an authority figure, sets the stage. Where your line of acceptability is in ethical issues is where your athletes line will be. Look around at training groups in a  variety of sports and it's obvious how true this holds.

Lastly, I'd like to briefly mention that we all will cheat more when we're tired. Ariely conducted research that showed that when individuals experienced ego depletion, in other words were running low on self-control and willpower, they were more likely to cheat. The only thing that saved some individuals was a high level of morality.

If we consider the fact that athletes training at the brink of exhaustion often walk around in a semi-depleted state at best, might they be more susceptible to crossing a certain line? Or would those athletes who are over trained and at their wits end be more likely to cheat?

The Why:
The question though remains, why do people cheat?

When exploring this question , they found it wasn't a simple risk/reward calculation but instead, people "cheat up to the level that allows us to retain our self-image as reasonably honest individuals." The narrative that we tell ourselves in our head is a powerful thing. It turns out it's so important that in terms of our dishonestly, it's not a mismatch between risk/reward but instead a balance between us thinking we're good people in our heads while wanting to get some sort of benefit from cheating. As Ariely points out, this results in a situation where "as long as we cheat by only a little bit, we can benefit from cheating and still view ourselves as marvelous human beings."

The key in this "fudge factor theory" is that we all set our own lines. It's how far across the line can we go while still looking in the mirror and thinking we are good people. For some it might be a white lie here or there, for others it might be full blown crossing over a very obvious line.

We all cheat. But ONLY how much we can get away with while still telling ourselves we are good, decent people. There are very few people walking around thinking in their head that they are a horrible person.

That's a profound statement and hard to wrap our heads around but it's true. Think about the cheats like Lance Armstrong. To the end, he didn't truly feel like he was cheating. He rationalized it by stating that everyone was doing it so the line was shifted. This is what happens with every person.

It's the reason why almost every single cheater doesn't believe that they are actually cheating. They've weaved a story in their head that justifies it. You see it in interviews with them after the fact. It's also why they can be utterly convincing when they answer questions about if they are cheating. They truly believe that they are doing things the right way.

The human mind has a tremendous ability rationalize and justify.

Dopers convince themselves:

How often do we hear a clean athlete state, "They have to live with the consequences of doping and knowing the medal they earned wasn't real. How do you live with yourself."

It makes perfect logical sense for the clean athlete. How can you feel joy after winning a dirty medal? The clean athlete couldn't imagine it. The mistake in the logic though, is that the doper has convinced themselves in their own mind that they are doing nothing wrong. Remember that cheating is all about cheating enough that we can still convince ourselves we are good, honest people. 

And research backs this up. As Ariely points out:

"We want explanations for why we behave as we do and for the ways the world around us functions. Even when our feeble explanations have little to do with reality. We're storytelling creatures by nature, and we tell ourselves story after story until we come up with an explanation that we like and that sounds reasonable enough to believe. And when the story portrays us in a more glowing and positive light, so much the better."

Cheaters in all walks of life truly convince themselves they had done nothing wrong. Even if someone took EPO before the Olympic final, they still see this medal as won by hard work.

Look no further than Lance Armstrong who convinced himself he would still be the true winner and proudly tweeted out a picture of his 7 tour jerseys after being busted. Or Mark McGwire who refused to say that steroids helped him hit any more home runs than he could have naturally (despite the obvious statistics...). It's all justification. They don't believe they are doing anything wrong.

And what's worse, Research demonstrated that if someone receives an award or certificate, they are even more likely to justify their behavior. Additionally, a monetary reward to report accuracy, did nothing to dissuade people's false belief that it was their own knowledge (and not the cheating from looking at an answer key in a test) that made them do well.

Think about that for a second. Even people monetarily encouraged to assess their abilities accurately, still held this inflated belief of their own knowledge and work ethic that was completely based on cheating.

That's the power of the mind.

Another interesting finding from Ariely is that an inflated sense of self makes it where individuals are more likely to believe their own justification story. This makes intuitive sense, but what it signifies is that those who cheated but justified it their mind, are much more likely to believe their own justification and thus think they did nothing wrong, if they have a larger ego. I'll leave it to those astute observers of sport to decide, but this is a very common experience in sport. You see big time athletes, coaches, etc. who have an inflated ego of themselves and it's more likely that they will see nothing wrong with their actions.

So if someone convinces themselves that they are doing it to save U.S. running, or to help some poor athlete escape poverty, the likelihood for cheating likely goes up. They've got their built in justification. And they won't think they are cheating, or feel bad about doing so.

As a good friend put it, "If you retell the story enough, it gets to be exactly how you want it."

Preventing Doping:
Now  that we've outlined the doom and gloom, let's get to the what actually be done.

As I outlined at the beginning, we have to continue to look at testing and investigation to catch cheaters, but what about addressing it on the front end, prevention.

Every once in a while you'll see a governing body do a clean sport education program, or you'll have athletes sit through a WADA/USADA online education program. Those are all fine and probably do a good job of explaining the basics of the system and so forth.

But in terms of prevention, do they actually accomplish anything? Or are they like the work place leadership programs that go on across the country that leave us feeling good about ourselves for a day or two before we inevitably settle down into our previous routines. I'm not sure I have the answer to that one, but to me the tactic often involved is one of scare tactics.

It's the 1980's anti-drug model of showing scary things that drugs can do. We often give the same lessons to kids, telling them about how steroids will do this or EPO will do that. The problem is this tactic doesn't often work in influencing behavior, or it actually influences someones behavior subconsciously in the wrong direction.

And if athletes are willing to risk their lives, take years off of it as well, in exchange for a medal, as many studies have shown, does it make sense that scare tactics will work?

So what am I suggesting?

In Ariely's research they tried a whole slew of items to decrease dishonesty and found the following four methods effective:

-Moral Reminders

The first three of these things refer to what I'd call reminders. Whether it's pledging before a test, signing an honor code, or a reminder of your morals, they all decreased subsequent cheating on a test.

In his research on cheating in a classroom setting, Ariely found that simply having individuals swear on the bible or attempting to remember the 10 commandments prevented cheating. This occurred even if the participants were atheists. Is there something special about religion that makes us resist cheating? Absolutely not, what is happening is that these brief interventions remind us of our moral values. Additional research found that making students sign an honor code from their university reduced cheating (even if their universities didn't actually have honor codes). It's this subtle reminder right before we're about to cheat that matters.

Am I saying that we should bring bibles, Koran's, and other holy books to track meets? Nope, not that. What I'm getting at is we need a mindset shift.

While it's impossible for us to stick a bible in front of every athlete right before he rubs that cream or injects himself with the latest designer drug. What about adding a brief statement before athletes fill out there whereabouts form? Or perhaps an ever changing weekly reminder to athletes that they are signing a moral code of ethics. It doesn't have to be complex, what we need to do is develop a system to remind athletes of the their values. 

It may sound ridiculous, but research shows that these subtle reminders help curb our temptation to cheat. It works by "resetting" our fudge factor line. Subtle reminders make sure that the line doesn't shift to some new level of acceptability.

On Ariely's final point, supervision, it's obvious. If there's someone nearby supervising us, we're less likely to cheat. Obviously this is hard to translate to a lone athlete taking EPO in his bathroom, but this is where social norms play a role. 

Attacking Social Acceptability:
Lastly, as Dr. Ariely states "Cheating is not about the probability of being caught, it's what's socially acceptable in our circle."

And this is perhaps the most practical and important items when it comes to engendering change.

Right now, drug users have the upper hand. It's becoming more and more socially acceptable to dope. Maybe not intentionally, but the perception is that a larger percentage of users are using, whether because of cycling scandals or the latest ARD/Sunday Times investigations.

The perception needs to be wrestled back from drug cheats. Clean athletes, coaches, sponsors, etc. need to take a stand for clean sport. Speak out and show the next generation of athletes that they are on the majority and have backing not to cheat.

It's not simply about speaking either, but do so in actions to. There was a lot of power in Ben True and others releasing their supplement declaration forms. Did it really matter? No. But it said, here you go, you don't need to take 10 different crazy things to make it to the world class level. It's the mindset that matters.

The same goes for agents, coaches, and sponsors. The message you send when you sign/start coaching a former drug cheat who offered no remorse, is one that states at the top we don't care about clean sport. The moment shoe companies send athletes to coaches who have had 4-5+ athletes test positive, it's sending the message that we don't care and we're going to take this fresh out of college athlete into a spot where she might be swayed the wrong direction. If we have governing bodies that hire ex-drug cheats who give lame excuses, it sends the wrong message.

That message matters. Far more than people realize, and research backs that up.

And that's the key. Coaches, governing bodies, athletes, and sponsors set the stage. They determine the way in which social acceptability swings. The greater the perception that no one truly cares, the greater likelihood that individuals will succumb to taking drugs.

As athletes coming out of college, remember that your norms will be shaped by your coaches, teammates, agents, and entourage around you. Choose wisely.

Just consider the groups that are "known" for dopers or shady athletes. Look no further than Victor Chegin and his race walking crew with over over a dozen athletes testing positive for EPO. In Russia, it's become the norm to dope. Do we really think that every single athlete that gets involved in Russian athletics has no morals and is a terrible person? No, but because the norm is to dope, the fence sitters are getting dragged in the wrong direction.

We're always going to have those athletes who take drugs. We're always going to have athletes who would never touch a drug even if they were in the old East German athletics system. Most people, like on a bell curve, find themselves somewhere in the middle. Our goal should be to make sure all of these individuals don't go the wrong way.

That means creating an environment where the social norm is to compete clean.

From a WADA/USADA perspective, I'd track supplement and legal drug use. They already require it as declaration of use on their forms, and perhaps they are tracking it. But I'd put a system in place where if the number or kinds of supplements increased beyond a low level, (A)I'd increase target testing and (B) I'd try an immediate intervention. This could be something as simple as a reminder to that person on why they got into sports, the beauty of clean sport, and perhaps a subtle reminder of their morality and a signing of a pledge to stay clean.

So what?

Education and testing are often touted as a defense against doping. But it's not about using scare tactics and explaining these are the health consequences of steroids. Testing alone catches a small portion of the drug users. Neither works in changing behavior. We are incredibly short sighted.

The key then is to shift mindsets to influence behavior. It should be to educate people on the slippery slope and justifications that they might encounter. It's to have athletes reflect on their purpose for pursuing athletics, their values, and whether or not the values would allow cheating.

So what I'm asking for is openness. If we can create an environment where it is normal to share what vitamins, supplements, and foreign objects go into the bodies of elite athletes, we can start to shift the tide. Create the culture where people believe that they can reach the highest levels with only Flintstone vitamins and hard work. Perhaps even providing their regular blood tests to an independent panel of physicians who sign off on them publicly, would also help. If we have our top athletes willing to band together in the name of clean sport, beyond the cliche of "test me, I'm clean," then we can start shifting the culture.

It's not about simply releasing blood values, that's not the point or perhaps even the right thing to do.  It's about creating an atmosphere where there isn't secrecy and subterfuge. Without secrecy, then athletes truly believe that they can make it to the next level.

And perhaps thats the point.  The governing bodies, coaches, or athletes who are complaining about the intrusion of privacy, the 'witch hunt' like activities, and the general cynicism towards doping in athletes, should step back and realize that the reason we are in such a situation is the message that has been sent. You can't complain about the problem, if the behavioral standard has been set to accept cheating. We're in the position of needing hyper-transparency because for generations athletes, coaches, sponsors, and so forth allowed the issue to grow. So don't blame the media or athletes for the intrusiveness and suspicion. 

Instead, look in the mirror and realize that the decisions that everyone in this sport makes, matters. From sponsors sending athletes to known drug cheat coaches, to agents taking on dirty clients, to clean athletes staying quiet in fear of upsetting someone, to governing bodies assigning former drug cheats as high profile coaches. It all sends a message that doping is socially acceptable.

Doping is a psychological issue. It's not that every person who dopes is evil and deranged. Some are seemingly good people who made a bad choice. Understanding why they made this choice is the key to curbing doping.

As Dr. Ariely points out:

In order to curb cheating, "we must start with an understanding of why people behave dishonestly in the first place."

And I don't think we truly understand.

If you're interesting in an easy read on some of the research mentioned, I highly recommend Dan Ariely's books, The Truth About Dishonesty

Episode 20- A Systems vs. Process Approach to Coaching


In Episode 20, Jon and I discuss the difference between a Systems and Process approach to coaching. What's the difference? A systems based approach could be described as having a set formula/specific model for training. It doesn't matter whether it's Daniels, Coe, Lydiard, or any other coach. A systems approach means following that plan without giving proper consideration for the world surrounding it. In essence the system (i.e. doing mile reps on this day, threshold on this, and long runs on the weekend) is more important than the result. A process based approach flips that on it's head and emphasizes the process of development. Recognizing that it's not about improving variables in isolation, but instead the global improvement that we're looking for.

 Jon likes to make the comparison that good process based coaching is a slow cooked meal, while a systems based approached is like cooking in the microwave. In another analogy, I brought up research by Brett Fajen that showed that during motor tasks, novices have a very fixed/rigid system where they can perform a task as long as it follows that defined task. Experts, on the other hand, have a flexible global model which allows for deviations outside of the fixed path. With this generalized model, the expert is able to deviate from the norm and still accomplish the task.

That's how systems vs. process coaching is. As a coach, you need to possess the ability to have a global model that allows deviation and flexibility.

In the end, it's similar to the idea expressed by Nassim Taleb "One cannot understand a macroscopic system by appealing to its components in isolation" It's about looking at how athletes react during workouts. Having the comfort to adjust and change workouts on the fly AND not having athletes see that as a failure, but instead the coach doing their job in adjusting and making sure they hit the right effort level. It's in these adjustments, just as Igloi masterfully performed with runner's like Bob Schul over 50 years ago, where great coaching comes from. We go over some of our favorite ways to manipulate workouts mid-workout to gain success.

Beyond what's described you'll get plenty of rants by both of us and a lot of energy and fun. We were definitely fired up discussing training, so hopefully you'll find it as interesting as we did!

The Art of Being a Contrarian


During my search for  understanding the history of endurance training, I saw a pretty distinct pattern. There was a constant ebb and flow of popular theories. The all-interval crew would take precedence and then the higher mileage method would  come back in style a decade or so later. This swinging of the pendulum back and forth is what defines progress. Over time, the pendulum swings through a slightly smaller range of motion as we get closer and closer to some optimal zone that lies somewhere in the middle of the two extremes.

In training this can be seen as during the early years, coaches were arguing over interval training 6 days a week or run endless miles pretty slow. Now, we’re arguing over the details of how to mix and match the extremes of speed and endurance.

I’m not sure why this occurs, but my best guess is that each “generation” of coaches and athletes keeps what worked for them, but then to try and be new or innovative tries something completely new. They rebel against the norm to ensure progress. Over time, we see a nice evolution towards the middle of training design. What’s interesting though is that this process occurs throughout life and not simply training.

Keeping with the athletic theme, we see the same thing in shoe design as we go back and forth between crazy cushioned shoes and minimalism shoes. What happened after the great minimalism craze? Hoka’s came out. It’s a counterbalance that occurs.

And that’s why I have the “rule” I always try to remind myself to do: Look the other way. Not because the direction everyone is headed doesn’t have value, it most likely does, but because most likely we’ll be headed back in that direction in a few years anyways.

Science vs. Art of coaching- What actually is Science?


While reading the Carl Sagan book The Demon Haunted World, which is a classic about science, pseudoscience, and technology, I came across a section in which Sagan essentially discusses how science develops and what it actually is. His argument is that it’s really a method of seeing the world. Science isn’t the rote memorization and recitation of facts or the publication of experiments in journals, but a way of thinking. While there’s nothing new about this argument, I think it’s a clear enough distinction that is often forgotten in the world of declaring one a scientists because you have some advanced degree. In particular, one of the examples he used struck home.

            Sagan brought up the now well known story of African tribes hunting and tracking techniques. He takes us through how anthropologist study a particular tribe, the !Kung San people, as they tracked animals. What caught their eye was the in depth, and accurate, way in which the hunters tracked animals. They could distinguish the type of animal, if it was hurt, how long ago it passed through, the  direction it went, and numerous other details just by a simple glance at the tracks and surrounding areas. While, we’re accustomed to seeing this in movies, when evaluated for how they did this, there were explanations of the depth of the depressions, the symmetry, whether there was “erosion” or a layer of dirt in the tracks, the swerve of the tracks and numerous other complex metrics. To accurately interpret all of this data, Sagan points out, the trackers would need to understand how the sun moves across the sky (for identification of wear shade is) during different parts of the year, how subsurface moisture impacts tracks, how different soil craters, and so forth. In essence, Sagan’s point:

“Is this really science? Does every tracker in the course of his training sit on his haunches for hours, following the slow degradation of animal footprint? When the anthropologist asks this question, the answer given is that the hunters have always used such methods. They observed their fathers and other accomplished hunters during their apprenticeships. They learned by imitation. The general principles were passed down from generation to generation. The local variance- wind speed, soil moisture- are updated as needed in each generation, or seasonally, or day-by-day…But modern scientist do just the same…”

Sagan goes on to compare this technique to how scientist judge craters in the moon in the same way that these trackers judge “craters” from animal tracks. But his point, is; these trackers developed this “scientific method” because of necessity. The good ideas (i.e. if the track is fresh, there’s no dust in it) survived because it increased the likelihood of catching the animal, while the bad ideas didn’t survive or get passed on. The tracking skills were refined over generations towards what worked best.

Further supporting this idea, Sagan points out that “Botanists and anthropologists have repeatedly found that all over the world hunter-gatherer peoples have distinguished the various species with the precision of Western taxonomist.”

He concludes with “By his criteria hunter-gatherers ought to have science. I think they do. Or did.”

That statement is rather profound. Here we have a scientific titan, Carl Sagan, declaring that a group most of us would declare as 'primitive' have their own method of “science.”

What’s this got to do with coaching?
That lesson is one that translated rather nicely to the world of coaching. 

As I mentioned in a recent piece on Science vs. Coaching, I think sometimes we get stuck into this idea that science is the equivalent of journal articles and complex language that only experts truly understand. People only think you are a “scientific coach/person/whatever” if you follow exact evidence based methods where you take whatever is in a journal as your method of training.

Instead, I prefer to follow Sagan’s ideas.

Similar to how hunter-gatherer’s refined their tracking skills and methods through evolutionary pressure to survive so that successful ideas stuck around , while less successful ones were discarded, coaching has followed a similar path.

Although that path is skewed and takes a wrong turn every once in a while, either by drug coaches/athletes distorting attainable training, popular fads that have limited success but a great presentation, or anything along similar lines; overall the good ideas stick around and the bad ideas get dropped. There is a selective pressure that drives coaching methods because in the end people want to succeed. The success gets imitated to a slightly larger degree than the unsuccessful; therefore the likelihood of a successful method gets passed on more readily increases.

I know I’ve discussed this at length, but it’s an important concept, so I’m going to hammer home on it.

Training knowledge evolves. It hasn’t been hundreds or thousands of years in refinement, but still we can see how training theory has changed appreciably over the past 100+ years. With each generation comes improvements (and wrong turns), but for the most part the improvements tend to outweigh the drawbacks. So we continually refine that process.

It's this evolutionary system that makes training development a science. It's a science in the same way that the hunter gatherers developed their skills. As coaches, we are figuring out what works so that we can survive. If what we do doesn't work, our methods are simply weeded out. Yes, there will be wrong turns, like the 1990's training era in the U.S., but corrections will be made. And overall, we're in a better place now than we were decades before. Not because of actual scientific research, but more so because of this natural evolutionary pressure that is exerted on training.

For the scientist, this means, recognize this process. It's like a multi-decade long study where we get clear data on what most likely works. Don't discount it because of the lack of hard theory, research, or data behind it.  For the coaches, look through history. Understand where we came from, so that we can know where to go.

There is value in understanding the path we’ve travelled to end up where we are training wise, where the wrong turns were, why they were made, and whether or not some pretty good idea mistakenly got left behind. It's not a perfect process. There will be wrong turns whether from natural misguidedness (i.e. the popularization of a method that only works for a few) or from artificial means (i.e. steroids and PEDs shifting training design). The key is understanding what successful athletes were doing, why they were doing, and where we evolved to. If you understand this process, you'll be able to better understand how to continue to evolve in your own training philosophy. And perhaps more importantly, reach back and realize the brilliance of some of those who have come before us, and perhaps realize the gem or two that mistakingly got left in the past which should have been carried forward. That's where the next breakthrough in training theory lies.

So I’m going to end this post with a recommendation of historical training texts in the endurance running world which I think are a must:

How They Train by Fred Wilt
Run, Run, Run by Fred Wilt
Arthurt Lydiard- (Go for any old/original copy!)
Running My Way- Harry Wilson
The Competitive Runners Training Book- Dillinger
The Van Aaken Method by Ernst Van Aaken
The mechanics of Athletics- Geoff Dyson
The original Track and Field Omnibook
Anything you can find on Igloi's training methods

Episode 19-Phoebe Wright on mindsets, struggles, and what it takes to run professionally

In Episode 19 of the Magness & Marcus show, we have a special guest in professional runner, Phoebe Wright. In an eye opening interview, Phoebe opens up about her running story. Starting off with what her mindset was going from walk-on to NCAA champion and how that mindset shifted once she reached the professional ranks.

Identifying it as having multiple Identity crisis' in running, Phoebe talks about her strategy of "zooming in and zooming out" to handle the stress of running. By getting hyper focused, she can break stresses down into small but manageable bites, while using the opposite strategy of zooming out to see the big picture when faced with a different set of challenges.

Phoebe reflects on the struggles she experienced in transitioning from the college ranks to the professional side, calling the two levels a "totally different sport", describing how she had to shift from a results orientated focus to a process orientated one in order to deal with the demands that professional running brought. When reflecting on advice for young professionals, she points out that the number one factor in achieving success on the professional level is attitude and environment. Unlike what most people assume, Phoebe puts "training" way down on the list and instead insists "Find the environment that completes you as a person," or as Amy Poehler put it "Treat your career like a bad boyfriend."

Before ending the podcast, Jon, Steve, and Phoebe discuss whether or not you have to live the "Runner/Spartan lifestyle" to make it on the professional level, or whether you can reach the highest levels with a degrees of balance.

For any athlete looking at transitioning to the next level, or for anyone who wants an inside look at the reality and struggles of running professionally, this interview is a must listen to!

Steve and Jon

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By Tina Fey

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