Is it a problem or a symptom?
A 1,500m runner consistently gets out kicked during cross country season when he is racing 5k. If he’s getting out kicked the problem must be that he doesn’t have enough “speed” to be able to pick it up during the last 100m, so we have to start doing more short and fast work, right? Wrong.
This line of thinking is often used in the High School ranks as justification for the massive amounts of faster interval work that is done. The problem is that the coach is mistaking the symptom for the problem or cause. In our above example, the runner not being able to finish strong is seen as the problem in the coach’s mind, when in reality it is the symptom. The difference is profound. The lack of finishing speed is the symptom that tells us that something else must be going on. In this case, the real problem is the athlete’s used all of his anaerobic capacity to stay on pace until the last 100m of the race. So, when the last 100m comes, he has no “anaerobic” energy reserve left so that he can kick it in. One solution is to improve the runner’s aerobic abilities so that he can use more aerobic energy, sparing his anaerobic reserve for when it’s needed. So, in this situation we work on making him more aerobic at race pace. This is the exact contrast to what would have been done if we looked at the lack of finishing speed as the problem itself.
This is but one example of the symptom vs. problem confusion. This concept appears throughout coaching and life. Too many times we address what is right in front of us without thinking what causes what we are seeing. The point of this short post is to make you aware of the difference between what we see, and the underlying causes. By being aware of the difference, and critically thinking about it, you’ll be much more prepared to actually help your athletes then if you simply address the outward symptoms. Let’s briefly look at a couple examples with running mechanics.
Running mechanics is one of the places where you see this symptom vs. problem confusion occur the most. Most people address exactly what they see. They compare their model of good running technique with their athlete’s running form and figure out what LOOKS different. There’s nothing wrong with this initial approach. The problem occurs in the next step, the fixing of the form.
The coach picks out what looks different, maybe its foot strike, or knee lift, or their back kick is too low. The next step is where the mistake occurs, they see that difference as the problem, when often times it is the symptom. The coach makes the mistake of directly addressing what they see. If the back kick is too low they tell the athlete to pull the foot higher, or if knee drive is too low they tell the runner to lift the knee. They correct the symptom.
In each case, the cause or the problem is often elsewhere. For example, if back kick is too low, the problem isn’t that the athlete isn’t pulling his leg towards his butt, but instead that he probably is cutting off hip extension or has a backwards lean. For foot strike, the athlete could be reaching out because his shoulder is rotating too much or his arms are crossing the body and the lower leg has to “keep going” because the arms have kept going. In essence, the body is compensating. Another example is someone with a very high back kick. While the person addressing the symptom would simply try to tell the runner to lower his back kick, the smart coach would look at the whole body and figure out that something else might be causing that high back kick, such as an excessive forward lean.
This is why knowledge of practical and applied biomechanics is critical. You need to know how the body works biomechanically so that you understand how everything interacts. Not picking on them, but this is why many distance coaches suck at running form improvements. I just watched a video today of a good coach who has had a lot of success coaching distance athletes try and work on running mechanics. You could tell right away that he was addressing the symptoms. I’m not meaning to disparage this coach, as it’s a very common mistake. It’s just that most distance coaches don’t have a sprint/biomechanics background so it’s out of their area of expertise. You generally make the symptom mistake when you know just enough to be dangerous.
One final example is the stride rate idea. You constantly hear distance coaches talk about stride rate, most quote Daniels saying 180 strides per minute is optimal. This is a classic example of symptom vs. problem/cause. Stride Rate is a RESULT of good biomechanics, or in other words it’s a symptom of the person’s biomechanics. It is NOT a GOAL. The stride rate comes along with optimal biomechanics, not the other way around. It is very easy to change stride rate while making bad biomechanical changes. Look at the people who cover no ground but have the “optimal” stride rate. They’re spinning their wheels but probably think that since they are in the “optimal” range, they are good.
There’s your conceptual lesson for the day. Understand the difference between a symptom and an actual problem. Don’t fall into the trap of addressing the symptom just because that is what you can see. Instead, understand the underlying causes, or the actual problem. Just like in medicine, it does little good to continual address the symptoms of a disease or sickness if you never address the actual cause. You might look better/feel better for a short term, but the symptom will just keep coming back until you finally address the underlying problem.