Escaping the running world: Why Learning from outside sources is needed

In any field, as you rise through the ranks and get more involved in whatever field you are pursuing, you get more and more insulated in your profession. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it creates a situation where we lose our ability to look at things from an outside perspective. We become more likely to accept whatever idea or concept is ingrained in our profession without asking questions.

To combat this problem it’s worthwhile to take a step back and explore other fields outside your own. For us runner’s or coaches that means not only exploring similar sports like cycling or swimming, but also entirely separate fields that have no connection what so ever to running. For this post, I’d like to delve into a couple of lessons I’ve learned recently from various non-running sources.

Football and Business
One of the more interesting classes I took in graduate school was taught by a former NFL general manager and was entitled Sports Leadership. One of the immediate lessons I learned from that class is that coaching is coaching, no matter the sport. While runners are quite the opposite of football players in terms of skills needed, the goal of the coach is still to “coach up” the athletes and figure out the best way to motivate and teach their athletes. While there’s too much information to go into depth about, some quick lessons I learned from football were:

-Preparation and Planning- The amount of preparation and planning that goes into getting all 56 players on the same page is insane.

-Eliminating chance- Although some of their testing methods (i.e. the hand timed 40y dash) are ludicrous, the point remains that whether it is through talent identification or through film study, the coaches and GM’s put a heavy emphasis on trying to eliminate the potential for mistakes as much as possible.

-Motivation- Don’t take it for granted and realize that even very good athletes need motivated. Identify who, what, and how of motivation.

-Buying in- Perhaps the most important lesson was the importance of getting everyone to buy into your program. How to do this is the tricky part and requires constant work.

There are many more examples, but what’s the connection between business and football? Super Bowl winning coach Brian Billick spoke to our class and what was very interesting about his talk was that when he recommended books to read, they were business books. In particular, he recommended the book Good to Great. When Brian Billick suggests you read something, you do it, so here’s a couple quick lessons from the world of business:

-Blatantly Obvious- We miss things all the time, especially if we are accustomed to looking at the same document or data over and over. It’s why you often miss your own grammar mistakes when going through a paper. In the coaching world, it’s also why we miss obvious signs that the training program might be going slightly wrong until after the season. How many times have you heard coaches (or done it yourself) talk about going back through the logs of an athlete after a bad race and have identified the problem. Well, why didn’t they catch that problem earlier? Because we miss things we are used to dealing with (like a running log). To combat this you have to make things blatantly obvious. This means, highlight those bad workouts so they stand out on the log so you don’t miss them.

-The 80/20 principle- In business this refers to the general idea that about 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. While it’s probably over quoted, the concept, not the exact numbers is important. In coaching terms, this applies to a lot of different situations, but one that is particularly interesting is motivation. In football where you have to deal with team chemistry, the majority of discontent or disruptions come from a minority of the team. You have to identify this population and address the issue.

-Being objective and figuring out what works- Not everything we do works and it’s important to figure out what works and what isn’t. I’ve expanded this concept from business and other sources to come up with what I generally call the coaching scale. In Great coaches training, 80-90% of their training works and 10-20% of it is crap. In good coaches, that ratio might be 60/40. An Average coach might be 50/50, and a bad coach will have more crap training then training that works. The take away idea is that even great coaches do some stuff that is wrong. If you are that coach, the goal is to identify what works and what doesn’t, because you don’t want to get rid of something that works. If you are a coach on the outside learning from X coach, then it’s important to realize that everything that coach does, even if they are very successful, is not Gospel. They’re doing something wrong. It’s why we can’t get caught up into 1 tiny part of a coaches whole program (like GS for example) and proclaim it to work because X runner ran fast. We don’t know if that 1 tiny part was the reason, we just know the overall program worked, not every single little thing.

While nutrition in itself is a field that is very closely connected to running, I’d like to focus on some lessons learned from a class I took on Obesity, which had little to do with running.

First, perceptions matter. In the class on obesity, we discussed the whole fit but fat concept. While it is a valid concept, I was blown away by how skewed the idea of fitness was in the class. To give an example, a person who was obese but had run a marathon and was an avid runner was used as an example of a fit but fat person who could not lose weight. What struck me was that, someone running a ~6hr marathon and training the “crazy” amount of 40mpw was used as an example of someone training at “extremely” high levels. Training at levels that a lot of us routinely train at was seen as “dangerous” and a sign of exercise addiction to some. The take away message in this bizarre example was that perceptions matter. I’m used to running 100mpw, so I see that as being fine and normal. “Regular” people see that as crazy and too much. Perceptions are the reason why we spent the first half of the century thinking that running any more than a couple miles per week would lead to “burnout.” It wasn’t until people challenged perceptions and found that the limit was much higher than was previously thought.
It’s interesting that if you read training books each decade going back 80 years or so, every one of them has a section on overtraining or a similar concept. 80 years ago, they were concerned with overtraining off of running a couple times per week with maybe a handful of intervals at race pace. Now we are concerned with overtraining when running 90+mpw with 3 or so hard sessions a week. It makes you realize that maybe we are able to handle more than we think we can and perhaps. To summarize, here’s one of my favorite quotes:

“Perception governs what is normal. What is normal now was not normal in the past and will not be normal in the future.”

Secondly, we can’t focus entirely on one pathway. In nutrition (and medicine) there’s a large tendency to focus on isolating a particular pathway. That’s why you see all these different supplements that actually do little. For example, the numerous testosterone “pre-cursors” on the market that are useless because they take 1 little step of many different ones that have to go right to get to testosterone and proclaim it as the key step. Another of my favorite examples is antioxidants. We run into problems when we isolate too much and forget the big picture.


Earlier in the year I had a project on the “thrifty gene” hypothesis. What stood out to me was that some scientists speculate that it’s the alternation of stress and recovery that has shaped us. In particular, the idea that ancient man alternated feast and famine, as well as stress and recovery in terms of activity, are relevant to running. While the feast/famine cycle has generally been well defined, the stress/recover cycle of ancient man is just now gaining popularity. What is interesting is that research shows periods of high activity (i.e. hunting, food foraging) were then followed by periods of low activity (consuming that food, rest). It goes beyond what ancient humans supposedly did.

If we look at the way the body responds, it seems like the whole stress/recovery cycle is ingrained in us. For example, as I pointed out in the blog post here, there is an intricate linking between periods of stress (famine/exercise) and recovery (feast/rest) in terms of blood glucose and insulin response, as well as glycogen utilization and fatty acid oxidation.

What’s that tell me for training runners? It just reinforces the idea of modulation and the need for manipulating stress and recovery during training. It also shows that we were meant to face large amounts of stress at some point. How often do non-exercisers ever face low glycogen levels or higher lactate levels or are ever outside of homeostasis? I’d venture to guess that there are many people who have never experienced that stress. Kind of scary to think about.

Lastly, I’m a lifelong baseball fan so I can’t leave without giving one lesson learned from the sport. One important lesson came from sabermetrician (math/stats guys) Bill James

“If you challenge the conventional wisdom, you will find ways to do things much better than they are currently done.” Bill James

Baseball is steeped in tradition and in a way it holds the sport back. It’s why they were so resistant to include weight training and why they still use crazy and outdated training programs in some programs. What is pretty amazing about baseball is that a group of guys who challenged the traditional ways of doing things have essentially changed the game. Look around the league and find a team that doesn’t employ some sort of statistics guru.

Secondly, baseball’s reliance on tradition teaches another valuable lesson. Just because someone famous, well known, successful, or a “guru” says it is true, doesn’t mean it’s automatically true. Baseball is filled with crazy examples of coaches. Some of the more prominent clean examples from not that long ago are:

-Dodgers doctors pulled teeth to restore pitchers sore shoulders
-Famous Orthopedist had pitchers suffering from shoulder pain to pitch through pain of shoulder to break adhesions

So what’s the take away message? Actively seek out sources that offer an outside perspective. You’ll be surprised how many connections you can make back to running.

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    1. anna on December 9, 2010 at 9:15 pm

      Last year I did a short course on nutrition and eating disorder. They implied somem of us were crazy and potentionally bullemic if we did 2 exercise sessions in a day.

      I'm also finding good take-home messages from the powerlifting world. They have a good sense of nutrition and programming. And their exercises (the squat and dead lift in particular) give you good strong legs so you can save time but reducing some of your running.

    2. Mark U. on December 10, 2010 at 1:57 am

      Good post! Fully agreed that changing perceptions shape a changing view of "normalcy". A great example can be seen by looking at photographs from relatives who were adults in the 1940's and 1950's. In two generations the body shape our immediate ancestors, previously considered fully average would be perceived today as abnormal or "skinny". Also agree that there's tremendous wisdom in reading in fields outside your own field of interest, your example of business readings to sports coaches being an excellent one (I suspect the reason is that we understand a broadly-applicable concept better if we first understand it in an area different from our main field of interest). Finally, as to the guru's accepted wisdom of old now being seen as laughable, implying obviously that modern day "guru's" may soon be seen as equally foolhardy, I suspect what's going on is our ingrained tendency to not challenge authority, combined with the power of the placebo effect in any recommendation from a credible and widely believed source.

    3. elodie on December 10, 2010 at 3:32 pm

      I think it's just as important to understand what the chief aims are behind the lessons you learn from other disciplines. In your example from the nutrition class, the goal of nutritionists is to support some kind of generalised health, not performance. In that context, 40mpw is more than adequate. Going beyond is thought of as crazy because of the risk, and we all know that that risk is substantial and real. I think this difference is less about perception and more a misunderstanding of objectives across disciplines.

      Similarly, business principles are highly focused on outcomes. Even management and motivation ideas tend to be justified in terms of productivity gained. Recreational runners include a large contingent driven less by performance or health goals, and more by the sheer sensory joy of running. Optimising the fun out of our sport, even for the sake of better performance outcomes, has a greater down-side in running than in business. Coaching of course, is part business and I think this slight difference is negligible when coaching elites, for example.

    4. Gary on February 17, 2011 at 1:46 am

      Grats on your new job Steve. I don't know if you will have much time to read any books outside the running world. If you do, you might consider reading some books by a soil scientist and a veterinarian, named William Albrecht and Andre Voisin respectively. What you can learn from the evidence presented by these authors will shake any confidence you might have in the "science" of nutrition. As Voisin stated back in the 1950's in "Soil Grass and Cancer":
      "All of these observations serve to illustrate how very different results can be obtained from trials based on a foodstuff so variable, although identical in appearance. It cannot be stated too often, nor sufficiently stressed, that the progress of biological and medical sciences must necessarily be slow so long as no consideration is given, either in experimentation or in dietetics, to the pedological and agronomic origin of the foodstuffs employed."
      Needless to say, the pedological and agronomic origin of food employed in nutritional experiments today is not taken into account.
      Reading "The Albrecht Papers" may cause you to come to the same conclusion that I have come to, that is, that there is only one dumb species on the planet when it comes to nutrition. All other species, when given sufficient food and the choice, select their food based on its nutritional value as determined by the soil fertility rather than by the species of the food.
      In starting to run last fall, you site has been a great help to me. When the snow melts, I plan to do some barefoot running and by then I can probably purchase some zero drop shoes from Altra Running.

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