Is it a symptom or a problem?

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.

The Evolution and History of Training: The Volume versus Intensity Cycle

The Evolution of Training:

The training of distance runners has evolved based on a trial and error method that is essentially the ultimate scientific process. For the most part, the successful practices stick around and the unsuccessful practices get left behind. However, this isn’t always the case, because as a runner or coach you know it’s impossible to exactly explain what parts of the training you did led to the racing success.

The first thing I did when I wanted to learn about training runners is learn what was done in the past. Even before figuring out the science and all of that jazz, I spent a long time going back as far as I could in reading what successful coaches in the past had done. What I noticed is that the training occurs in a cyclical nature. There has been a constant “war” between intensity and volume throughout the years. While this is a simplistic way of looking at it, you can clearly see that every 10-20 years the emphasis goes from Intervals to steady runs or vice versa. I the early years, it was a complete 180, either almost all steady running or all interval training, but with each turn in the cycle a little bit of the previous cycle’s work got carried over. Thus it’s been a constant process of refinement that got us to our present day mix of pretty high volume with a good amount of interval/intensity work thrown in.

Going from Mono to State Champ

As always, I try to be up front and open about what I believe in coaching runners. There are no secret workouts, it has all been done at some time during the past, what changes is how all the ingredients are put together. It forces me to be a better coach and innovate more if I freely put out what was done in the previous season. The High School season finished this weekend with Ryan getting second in a 4sec PR (8:58 for full 2miles) behind his training partner for the past month, Tim Cousins who ran a huge 12sec PR (8:56), and is coached by Ryan's dad. Ryan went for it, going out a bit too hard and tying up a little at the end, as he got to experience how tough it is to try and lead from a mile out. Anyways, as always I'll post the exact workouts that Ryan and the other guys (Will and Tony) did this past season. Feel free to critique or ask questions.

Learning from other sports: Baseball:

Learning from other sports: Baseball:

What could baseball possibly teach runner’s or endurance athletes? I mean just look at the baseball players, and the words “in shape” or “fit” don’t exactly spring to mind. The sports themselves have almost nothing in common, except for the fact that each can drag on for hours, depending on the running event. But if we look hard enough, plenty of lessons can be learned from America’s national past time.

SEARCHING FOR STABILITY: The efficacy of unstable training

With the popularity of the strength training posts, I've gotten many questions on both my and Matt's comments on unstable training. People want to know why we both generally oppose the use of such devices as swiss balls, bosu balls, and dyna discs. Matt has once again been kind enough to let me post his excellent paper on the subject. So what follows is a research based paper by Matt Andre discussing the use of unstable training. It is long, but well worth the read, and is completely cited for those research sticklers.

“The physical education of the human race ought not to be confined to the humble object of preventing disease. Its aim should be loftier and more in accordance with the destiny and character of its subject – to raise man to the summit of his nature; and such will be its scope in future and more enlightened times” (Green, 1986, p. 183). This prediction, stated by S. D. Kehoe in the 1860s (according to Harvey Green), stands true today. Both exercise and sports scientists alike strive to determine the best way to achieve the pinnacle of human performance, not just for health’s sake, but simply to see what the human body is physically capable of. However, these goals have led some Americans down a path that will actually take them further away from the objective of reaching their highest physical potential.
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