This is going to be an interesting attempt at a blog. One that takes seemingly unrelated subjects and ties them into my main focus, running.
If you were to flip through any of the myriad of books I’ve read on some pretty random subjects, you’d see the margins littered up and down with notes. If a stranger was to read them, they probably would make no sense, because they’re almost all about connecting whatever random subject I’m reading about back to running. It doesn’t matter what the subject is. Recognizing similar patterns in other subjects, or taking overarching themes and tying them to your specialty is key to broadening your horizons and not falling into the same dogma that gets presented over and over again within a specialty. Making connections is a skill that should be learned. Given that, I’m going to delve through several of my books and highlight some of the abstract lessons I’ve learned and what that means to my specialty, running.
This is somewhat related to a previous post where I gave my kind of overarching principles and rules for everything: https://www.scienceofrunning.com/2010/04/my-rules-of-everything.html
One of my favorite sayings is we constantly underestimate the human body and its complexity. You can see this in almost every field, but in exercise science some recent controversies that demonstrate this are the hydration issue and the running shoe cushioning issue. Reading other science type books does nothing but cement the idea of the complexity of the body. My quick example will be from the book Evolution in four dimensions, where in one part there is a discussion one pigenetic changes to DNA leading to evolutionary changes. The authors state that recent findings result in an ability to change their way of thinking.
“We are now free to think in realistic molecular ways about rapid genome restructuring guided by biological feedback networks.” This quote was made in reference to how for years, it had been assumed that the gene was all that mattered. Nothing changed, environment mattered little and the gene dominated. However, more recently we know that that isn’t how it works. Another quick example is that of hydration where we assume that weighing ourselves and forcing down fluids is better than listening to our body and thirst mechanisms. The lesson here is obviously to be aware of the complexity of the body and it’s almost genius.
We’re in the age where technology allows for improvement. That translates over to the somewhat false idea that we can engineer things to be even more optimal. As mentioned earlier, the overbuilding of shoes is a great example. Another more relevant to performance change would be the reliance on “fake” foods or vitamins. For more information on this, see sweatscience.com and the recent findings on whole vs. partial foods and what our brain senses, or see my many diatribes on why antioxidants after/during exercise isn’t a good idea.
Knowledge reflects what we experiment on and study:
This is a seemingly obvious statement, but the impact is profound. We only know about what we study in science. In reading the book Evolution in four dimensions, they make the nice point that since early genetic studies were on flies and then bacteria, our ideas on how genes and evolution work was based almost entirely on what happened in these organisms. The problem became when we transferred that into overarching principles for all of genetics. This happens all of the time in every science. Theories are developed and become dogmatic because they fit with what was initially studied by happenstance almost. You can see this in running science literature or coaching.
We only know what we study. So if some early pioneer focused on VO2 measurements because that’s all they had to measure with, then that becomes important simply because we could measure it. The same goes for lactate during the 90’s, and so forth. This is one problem with a strictly evidenced based program. We know far too little to be able to measure what matters, performance, and in many cases we don’t even
know what we should be measuring.
Short vs long term-
- 57 From the book the 10,000 year explosion- “sometimes the apparently inferior choice has a better upgrade path: Evolution can’t know this, and we aren’t particularly good at recognizing it ourselves….”Natural selection may solve the same problems differently in different populations, and what appears to be the most elegant solution at the time may not in fact turn out to be the one that works best in the long run”
The principle of immediate versus long term results is a paramount. The above idea fits well in running in several ways. First off, in terms of workouts, there are certainly workout types or methods that would produce very good short term gains, but then would sputter out. It’s important to keep the big picture in mind and realize that sometimes we do things because we know they will increase your ceiling in the future. A good
example is running form changes. Sometimes when you make form changes you get an immediate decrease in running economy, because the movement is new and awkward (and that’s what researchers will point too…). However, what proper form changes do is increase the potential ceiling of efficiency. So that once you get adapted to the change, how efficient you can actually be increases.
The second part of this quote is very pertinent to coaching. Sometimes the easy solution doesn’t work in the long term. For example, we might see big improvements by throwing a bunch of fast interval work with no mileage background for a few weeks. But what happens most of the time is the athlete gets sudden improvement and then plateaus or bottoms out. So fast work might be the easy answer to the question “How do I improve for the race in 3 weeks?” but long term it might not be the best option.
Again from the book the 10,000 year explosion, they give a nice example of how adaptation time matters. In terms of food, the popular example is how the Polynesians or aborigines have more western diseases than even western cultures, probably because of very recent changes in diets. The western cultures have had a much longer period of time to adapt therefore the stress response isn’t as great.
I like to translate this to the length of time that an athlete has had of a particular training stimulus. A runner who has years of mileage and tempos will be much more adept at doing those workouts or that load, then one who has done low mileage and lots of fast work. What that means, is that even if two athletes run the same times, it doesn’t mean they should be doing the same total workout load of one particular aspect. Instead, you have to look at where they are in terms of adaptation.
“science requires communication and cooperation between people who are unusually good at puzzle solving.”
This is self explanatory, but connections are key and you need someone to bounce ideas off of and tear apart those wonderful theories you have. It allows you to get a viewpoint that doesn’t include your biases. Sometimes the most productive conversations I have on training/running are with those who know running well enough, but who are very smart in fields outside the exercise science/training world. They aren’t trapped by traditional thinking and will ask the question “why?” on things we just accept and take for granted.
It’s amazing how many things you just skip over and your brain doesn’t even think about, that probably should be questioned.
“If you are advising or treating individuals according to the average effects of a gene, you may be doing the wrong thing.” Average mask individual variation- that’s the whole point of an average.” Both from Evolution in four dimensions.
The fact that everything relies on the average is a common theme. If you look, almost every single research study is based on the average. That is a necessary evil, but far too little attention is paid to variability. This is the single reason why we can’t have an entirely research founded practice in training or coaching. If we just did what the studies said exactly, then we’d be training the way X average person in X population should train. What about the outliers (of which we mainly deal with in elite sport…). Individualization is key. Don’t forget that when coaching, and don’t forget that when evaluating research. Just because X works on average, doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for your individual.
Again, not to nitpick, but it’s why we can’t just say “X worked in research, so it should work for you.” This applies to every field and it’s why the best in whatever field are the ones who can take principles learned and think outside the box using those principles. They simply don’t prescribe some workout or some diagnosis because it worked for the average person.
Part vs. whole-
“Whether or not a length of DNA produces anything, what it produces and where and when it produces it may depend on other DNA sequences and the environment. The stretch of DNA that is a gene has meaning only within the system as a whole”
We tend to isolate variables and concepts and take a reductionist approach to everything. Do x “Vo2max” workout to improve one variable, do x Threshold to improve another. We forget that the interplay and interaction is what is truly important. What a workout does is defined by what surrounds it. Renato Canova once put it nicely when he said that an athletes fitness can change even if X indicator workout is the same if what has surrounded that workout has changed. It’s why one single workout in time doesn’t matter.
This also relates to nutrition where we see a reductionist approach to we need X vitamin or nutrient or macronutrient and it doesn’t matter how we get it. Recent research, however, shows that the brain is much smarter than we are. It changes how it reacts based on the combined effect of whatever we are taking.
Darwin thought use and disuse and heritable variation occurred, but over time this part of his belief was lost and forgotten. So everyone thought he didn’t think the above was how it worked. “at this point in time, as at most previous stages of the history of evolutionary ideas, certain findings in biology are being ignored or underplayed”
We go through a cycle of forgetting and remembering what’s been done before us. You see this in the reintroduction or rememphasis in certain training methods in the coaching world. That’s why it is incredibly important to know your history. And if you can, know your history from a primary source where you attempt to look at it through their eyes during that time period. For example, going back and reading Lydiard’s original work gives a greater appreciation of what he was trying to do, then reading someones summary now, 50 years later. We lose a little bit of the original message. Know your history.
The more history you know, the more you realize why certain methods stuck around and certain ones were discarded. You’ll also learn methods that were successful that may have been overused but still have a place in your arsenal (think Igloi training…).
In the book Sway, they talked about the reluctance of football teams and coaches to adapt to new styles, “they had used the grind it out and hold on to the ball strategy for so long that it was simply hard for them to let go. They were committed to continuing down the road they had always walked. They were so committed, in fact, that it was virtually impossible for them to take a different path.”
This relates to another one of my favorite sayings, it’s okay to fall in love with an idea or philosophy, but don’t marry it. If you start identifying solely with an idea or “marry it” then you put yourself in a hole and will resist change even if that is what needs to be done. This is particular important in training because there is so much individual variation that at times you are going to have to go against your norms and do something different. It’s one of the reasons I hate when people say “I’m a high mileage guy” or “I’m a speed guy” in terms of their coaching philosophy. Well, that’s great, but your pigeonholing yourself and there will be a day when an athlete comes along that needs the opposite of your philosophy and you will have to change if they are going to be successful. Can you?
Another one from the book Sway. Value attribution is our tendency to imbue someone or something with certain qualities based on perceived value, rather than on objective data. “we may turn down a pitch or idea that is presented by the wrong person or blindly follow the advice of someone who is highly regarded.
In the book, they describe how the value that people attributed to drinking the same Sobe drink affected their score on a subsequent test. Meaning that if they paid more for the SoBe, the scored better because if they paid for it (and attributed value to it) then the claims must be true.
“we often ignore all evidence that contradicts what we want to believe.” Sway
Lastly, we’ll end with this quote. Don’t take offense if evidence points to a different conclusion than you thought. Read it, analyze it, and see if it fits in. It doesn’t have to change your opinion, but if there is enough of it, you might want to consider. You see this all the time in Science. Whether it’s global warming or shoe pronation/cushioning. Take evidence as data. Don’t ignore it for convenience.
There’s my mishmash of random recent lesson I’ve learned from reading books outside my field and how they relate to my field. I highly suggest stepping out of your comfort zone at times and trying to see if you can tie overarching concepts back into your own specialty.