Why strength coaches don’t know endurance training- Domain Expertise, Chronic Cardio, and Confirmation Bias
Why do smart people believe dumb things?
No, I’m not talking about some intelligent person believing in some crazy conspiracy theory or seemingly irrational belief, I’m talking about really smart people talking about things that are just a side step away from their area of expertise.
I listen to a decent number of podcasts, try to be as well read as possible on a number of subjects, and generally like to hear what “smart” people are thinking and discussing. If for no other reason, that the process of success translates regardless of whether it’s in athletics, academics, or life. And it astounds me how many really successful people at their domain are utterly clueless, but very confident about it, in another domain.
How can I be so brash to declare that they are clueless? Well I technically can’t, but it’s because they are talking about my domain: endurance. And whether I have a clue or not is debatable, but it’s still my domain of “expertise” and I feel good about understanding it and applying it better than most people who don’t live in this domain. Perhaps because I’m entrenched in this world of endurance, it could be argued that I’m blind to innovation and rely on traditional dogma, as will be certainly argued by non-endurance believers, but I like to think my track record is at least somewhat established in challenging dogmas (shoes, stretching, etc.) in the endurance world.
What I’m talking about is when non-endurance folks talk about endurance. It could be the health benefits of it, how to train for it, or some similar topic. But I’ve heard some incredibly bad arguments by some really smart people on this topic, and boy are they confident about it!
We can look no further than the “chronic cardio” crowd who think that all of life’s problems are caused by excessive “cardio” (whatever the hell that is…pet peeve-it’s a useless term…). Briefly, the chronic cardio crowd claims that excessive cardio leads to horrible health issues. You can choose your topic on what negative consequence it causes, from stress to inflammation to ruined knees to the mother ship of them all: death. The point is, I’ve read or listened to seemingly smart people talk about how bad running is for you. ‘Expert’ trainers, doctors, tech guru’s, marketers, longevity guru’s, you name it. It was the in vogue thing to do.
It’s a simple pattern, make some big polarizing claim(cardio kills), throw in a bit of sciency sounding stuff and perhaps cite a research study or two, and with enough enthusiasm and you have a flock of willing folks spreading your message. For instance, in the anti-endurance world, they’ll throw around this idea that cortisol levels are increased with chronic cardio and a ton of oxidative stress occurs, so you age way faster! It sounds lovely, until you realize that ACUTELY almost any exercise causes such effects, and they aren’t bad. But that’s another point…
So, when I hear these arguments, two questions arise from me:
1. How did they get these viewpoints when the rest of the endurance world has the opposite consensus?
- Does my confidence in the endurance world spill over into topics I think I know about but really don’t? Essentially, do I do this?
In particular, I want to use strength coaches as a backdrop for this evaluation. In reality we could be talking about a Sports Medicine Doctor talking about nutrition. Or your latest paleo guru talking about cardio training. It doesn’t matter. What I’m concerned with is NOT proving these claims wrong, but instead, how do smart people get to seemingly dumb, anti-norm, based beliefs.
This isn’t a blog about hating on strength coaches. I know there are tons of great ones, who know more than me on numerous subjects. In fact, I got the pleasure of chatting with a number of great ones up at the Seattle Sounders Winter Antifragile seminar.
Instead, I want to use our “generic” strength coach as a way to look at a much bigger problem. So my apologies to strength coaches, don’t take it personally, if you are reading this blog, chances are I’m not talking about you.
Our first strength coach was a nice guy with a football background who was willing to learn. He even read through my grad school thesis, which showed some nice dedication towards understanding something that didn’t come as an area of natural expertise.
But after that, in our college setting, I took over as our team strength coach for a simple reason. I didn’t want to have to teach someone about the demands of our sport, when I could simply control what we did myself. It wasn’t an ego thing, it was a care thing. Whoever we get in the weight room most likely hates being assigned to our sport. Why? Because they were primarily brought in for another sport and gets thrown Cross-Country as a filler. That’s the reality of most college athletic programs. If it wasn’t, then college XC coaches would have a chance to interview new strength coaches like other sports do, but I can assure you that rarely happens. We get the leftovers.
And the funny thing is this…
Often times, our strength coach who knows just enough to be dangerous, (after all they are a conditioning expert too) are extremely confident in their viewpoint of how to train endurance athletes. Often the conversation revolves around the best way to improve VO2max (as if that mattered the most…) was through high intensity interval training, and we are wasting our time doing much endurance work. For the well intentioned one, studies will be cited over and over to demonstrate the value of their approach.
And then once the endurance coach and the strength coach leave the conversation, nobody changes their worldview. The endurance coach thinks the strength coach just doesn’t get it and the strength coach thinks the endurance coach is behind in the times and too stuck in his ways to change to the new modern method of training.
So how do we get here?
Evolution of Knowledge:
In Nassim Taleb’s book Antifragile, one of his central explorations is understanding how knowledge eventually makes its way to applied practice. The traditional viewpoint is that theory developed primarily in the Academic world eventually gets researched and translated into applied practice.
On the other hand, we have what Taleb refers to as “tinkering” knowledge, where through trial and error practitioners refine their practice tactics through an evolution like process. While both methods of applied practice acquisition play a role, Taleb’s argument was that we are biased towards focusing on the Academic route and away from the non-measurable. Or as he put it “No, we don’t put theories into practice. We create theories out of practice.”
The concept was that we have two ways of developing knowledge. One that occurs through an academia route. That is the way we learn in school that we are all familiar with. The other way is more experience based, trial and error, intuitive learning. In other words a way of learning that is more difficult to assess and measure.
And this simple concept to me explains the differences between strength coaches and endurance coaches.
You see, endurance coaches generally develop a base of knowledge through natural mechanisms. The vast majority either performed the particular sport or a variation of it, or if they did not followed some mentor coach who taught them through informal observation and trial. They initially, and probably informally, developed a knowledge for how the sport worked through participation and experience. This explains the phenomenon of coaches initially coaching how they were trained in high school or college. If we don’t progress beyond this it’s a problem.
But what this experience often does is creates this base of how things are done. We then adjust, subtract, add, or change our training philosophies off of this foundation of support. Often times, we then go branch out and look into the sciences to find justification for why things are done this way, or to help further refine our process. In essence, what happens is that, as Taleb pointed out, we are trying to create theories for the why’s based on practice. We use the science to explain and refine, not necessarily develop.
On the other hand, our strength coach probably never grew up running, cycling, or swimming and interests most likely lied in some explosive or powerful sport. After all, that’s how most find themselves going down this path towards strength coach. So they might have a great experiential knowledge of developing strength from their sporting or lifting days, but the experential learning from an endurance standpoint is lacking. If they come up the football route, there exposure to endurance training is likely tied towards punishment (run some laps!) or no-pain no gain conditioning (hill repeats for conditioning!). So many start with a bias against traditional endurance training because it was tied in with punishment and was something that they weren’t particular good at or fond of, so it wasn’t enjoyable.
Instead, the first time they reached the need to really learn about the concept of developing endurance or even work capacity in that direction was through schooling or the traditional academic knowledge route. They might have been exposed to the concept of VO2max in a kinesiology class or while studying for their ACSM personal training exams. While learning about concepts of VO2max and training at percentages of it, as well as lactate thresholds, heart rate zones, and similar concepts, this in turn becomes their foundation for how they understand endurance.
They start to understand training through this model. Whether it’s longer slower work or interval training, it becomes about hitting certain zones or eliciting some physiological workload. In other words, they establish a framework that is different from that of the endurance coach. It’s the academic learned knowledge base.
Secondly, they see the workload through the lens of their preferred modality. In most cases, this is through the training view of something like lifting or sprinting. So what we have a tendency to do is to come at the information from our own world view. So a sprint coach looking at endurance training would fit the workout classifications into things like speed endurance 1 & 2, intensive and extensive tempo, and so forth. They’d take the concepts and plug them into that.
Similarly, when looking at weights, we’re likely to relate track workouts or endurance work back to something that we can make sense of. So if we have 3 sets of 8 reps at 70% max squats, then we will likely be taken by an explanation that says do 5x 800 at 95%VO2max or at 90% max HR, because of the similarities then to do 800s at something like 3k pace, which gives us no known comparison point.
If you don’t believe me, try this thought experiment. Choose one of your runners, and think about their PR’s, let’s say a 15min 5k runner. Now ask yourself roughly what pace you’d have them run at for a long run, tempo run, mile reps, etc. Pretty easy, right? Now think about writing a training program for someone running a 35min 5k, without looking up pacing categories on mcmillan or similar, try the same experiment. If you aren’t used to writing training in that range, it’s a heck of a lot more difficult! We can’t relate and connect it as well as you can for runners who race in a range that is familiar to you. The same thing occurred to me once I first started coaching women. The natural pace guidelines didn’t come instinctual to me and I had to calculate splits and paces, while with guys it came as second nature. The same phenomenon occurs with those outside of the world of endurance coaching, only to another extreme.
The point is that the paradigm from which we get our foundational knowledge is different. And that influences how we see the world of strength, endurance, or whatever it is.
Why do “meatheads” love the concept of chronic cardio? Because it’s a confirmation bias. It gives them a rationale to hate something they already hate. It confirms their wants, desires, and beliefs, so they jump in it hung ho. The reality is that these same guys would hate “cardio” regardless of if they had justification or not, but they are primed to recognize and see things that confirm their own beliefs.
It’s the same reason why you get people who jump on the “too much running leads to death” ideas that were so eloquently taken down by Alex Hutchinson. Let me ask you a question, how many people like to run a lot?
I assure you, in the grand scheme of things, very little. Just the kind of people who read this blog.
So for the vast majority of the world, they attach to ‘running is bad’ because they simply don’t want to do it. It, once again, provides a rationalization for them to not do what they already don’t want to do.
For instance, in college we had team tv show night where all the team would get together and watch The Hills. Yes, the crappy pseudo-reality tv show. We called it turn your brain off time, as the only way you could get through it was if you turned your brain off and just let yourself go. Well, this was huge for our team because it allowed mental recovery from the stress we faced of running 100mpw on top of stressful school situations. It was our mental recharge time. We recharged our willpower and self control. Add in the ridiculousness of it all and we decreased our cortisol levels that accompanied the laughing and socializing. The laughing caused a stir of feel good chemicals an hormones like dopamine and opioids, along with a hit of growth hormone. So we are not only feeling good, but also recovering!The socializing has been shown to flip the ratio of testosterone to cortisol so we were putting our body in a better anabolic to catabolic state, or in essence helping our recovery. Because we “turned our brains off” we were actually just going into instinctual mode relying on the more ancient part of our brain, the limbic system, and giving our deeper thinking/processing part of the brain a rest from being tormented all day with academics and athletics.
Socializing has been shown to flip the ratio of testosterone to cortisol so we were putting our body in a better anabolic to catabolic state, or in essence helping our recovery. Because we “turned our brains off” we were actually just going into instinctual mode relying on the more ancient part of our brain, the limbic system, and giving our deeper thinking/processing part of the brain a rest from being tormented all day with academics and athletics.
All of this combined meant that the greatest recovery we could do, both mentally and physically, after our monday hard workout was to watch The Hills….The only problem is…
I made all of that up…
Okay…not all of it. We actually did have team Hills nights sadly (or awesomely?), and some of those chemical reactions do happen to a degree. But put altogether it’s a bunch of BS. The point is the story sounded okay, there was some science in it, and it gave me justification for pushing my college bed time slightly past 10pm. It was recovery!
In conversations with friends, I’ve said this a million times, that I could make up some sort of scientific sounding rationalization for almost any behavior I have. Just add some sciency sounding words together in a somewhat coherent model and boom, we have a theory to justify behavior. In fact there is research that shows that adding “neuroscience” concepts and explanations leads people to believe it more so.
That’s what this is all about. Justification.
We like nice neat little stories put together in our head. So we justify our behavior, because it is WAY easier to justify a particular behavior then to admit that the years spent learning information to the counter was wasted. We don’t like things that upset our world view. And if we came up through the “strength coaches way of understanding endurance” then we are bound to have our world view upset when encountered by more traditional methods of endurance training.
It feels really bad giving up all of those years of learning. Who wants to admit that reading all of those textbooks and paying all that money for a certification or a college course that taught us “wrong” items.
So it’s a matter of cognitive ease. We have a hard time giving up things that we invested a lot of time in. So, instead we don’t give them up. Even if they are wrong.
Of course, as endurance coaches, we also have a proclivity to look at strength training through an endurance lens, so we can be guilty of our own bias too! And that’s the point. It’s not that strength coaches just don’t ‘get’ distance running. It’s that they see it through a different world view because of the evolution of their knowledge. It’s not entirely their fault. Just as it’s not entirely our fault that we see strength training through an endurance lens.
In fact, if used productively, it can be a welcome respite from the dogmatic worldview of your own domain. When we aren’t stuck in the domain it allows for seeing things in a new light. The key though, is to know the limits of this approach. It’s to be well informed enough to understand the process of training, but hold on to just enough of that rebellious attitude and skepticism to search for ways to do things better. It’s this balance of old and new, respect for history without the dogmatic reliance of ‘we do this because we’ve always done it this way’, that we need to attempt to develop.
And that’s the key to me. When we’re looking at solving this riddle of understanding strength or endurance from another perspective, or from a grander view in preventing ourselves from believing “dumb” things, the key is understanding the history and the process. We need to have appreciation and understanding of how the current thought processes developed from the practical viewpoint.Tiring this all back together, the important consideration to me is to learn from both a practical viewpoint to see where and how the current theories developed and then use the current “academic” knowledge to understand why those processes work and maybe how to tweak them. To give an example, when I wanted to learn about strength training, I had a decent understanding for the “science” side because that’s what I was exposed to in school, but I went back and looked at what some of the best minds in the strength/sport/conditioning community were doing at the time and where those ideas evolved from, including a german text or two, which was rather interesting. It’s not perfect, but it gave me an appreciation for how we got to modern theory on strength or power training.My goal was simple. I wanted to get a glimpse of the model in which they understood their world. I knew what model I was biased to see it through. But if I could wrap my head around just a little bit on the lens they saw the world through, it would help me understand the different perspective and make better decisions that weren’t blinded by my own domain expertise.The point of this rambling blog wasn’t to disparage strength or endurance coaches, but instead show why really smart people can believe dumb things, and what we can do about it to make sure that we don’t end up on the dumb side of the coin.
Ego pure and simple. I aspire to a body that is extremely poorly adapted for distance running, therefore I'll cherry-pick research that seems to support the notion that distance runners are hopelessly misguided and in the dark ages when it comes to training.
Of course, when Lydiard came along, his runners absolutely blew away the interval-trained Olympic-caliber runners of the 1960s and previous decades.
"…I'm talking about really smart people talking about things that are just a side step away from their area of expertise."
There are certainly some folks who oppose "chronic cardio" who meet your definition. Cardiologist James O'Keefe springs to mind, as does "paleo guru" Art De Vany.
However, there are others who also oppose "chronic cardio" who do not, and who in fact have decades of experience in endurance sports.
Mark Sisson and famed endurance coach Phil Maffetone spring to mind as examples of the latter.
There's a lot to be learned between understanding differentiating the criticisms of the latter group and the former group.
Nice point about the difference between academic learning and experience.
Steve I love this post!
I came to coaching via what I suppose is an odd route. First as a tool to prevent my parents from driving me to go fishing all the time (bought me a mountain bike), then found a love of cycling, had decent talent based on performance but more on the "lab" (which is often BS in application – though interesting none the less), found the love of "tinkering" to get more out of myself more fun than the actual racing, found strength training could help me… and then finished undergrad and really began coaching.
I came to strength from an endurance performance standpoint, and those two areas progressed together the past 22-25 years (ouch!).
It has always frustrated me how the two human performance "worlds" seem to collide… while so much was related, and could be learned from one to the other.
I really appreciate how you laid this out. You totally nailed a really complex conversation, and it's work that's really appreciated. Thanks!
I really enjoyed this post. This was an excellent discussion of the impacts of athletic background bias on programming. The explanation of why individuals adopt the chronic-cardio concept was well done. Here is some food for thought below.
Is confirmation bias responsible for adherence to traditional endurance exercise dogma?
Reference your points regarding strength athletes:
“It confirms their wants, desires, and beliefs, so they jump in it hung ho.” and “It, once again, provides a rationalization for them to not do what they already don't want to do.”
Distance runners want to run a lot and want to believe that it makes them the best. To adapt the statement from above “it provides a rationalization for them to do what they already want to do.” You recognize that endurance individuals may perceive strength training incorrectly just as strength individuals perceive endurance training incorrectly. Have you considered that endurance individuals perceive endurance training incorrectly because of an experience-first approach that results in confirmation bias?
My major is concern is this: While reflecting on my racing experience and finishing my physiology PhD I have concluded that the appropriate approach to programming is obviously to begin with the science and fill in the gaps with experience where conclusions are unclear. You have come to the exact opposite conclusion while working on your PhD: “We use the science to explain and refine, not necessarily develop.” I posit that this approach underlies the basis for athlete overreaching particularly for distance runners who exhibit a disproportionate occurrence of this phenomenon.
The goal of training is to induce cell-signaling which begets desirable molecular alterations. Period. Thus, shouldn’t there be a rationale for every, specific component of a training prescription? It seems disingenuous for a coach or athlete to claim a scientific approach and background, but then admit that experience is the starting point and science is the modifier. This is not to say experience is unimportant. Indeed, programming with no experience would be a disaster as you point out. However, the science-first approach to programming aims to produce the necessary cell signaling only and then stops there. I feel that this approach acts as a check to avoid overreaching and protects the coach from him/herself. Certainly, you’ve seen these benefits in your academic and coaching domains.
Again, excellent discussion of bias and always interesting to hear your insights,
Thanks for commenting everyone.
Clark- Interesting thoughts, but I'd refer you to the idea that in terms of practical training, we can see it as 100+year evolutionary process of refining training practices. While not perfect, it's been a transition towards a more optimum training design.
There is certainly a degree of confirmation bias in exercise dogma, but for the most part it's a self-correcting mechanism. Look at the endurance world for example. For a period in the 1980s-90s heavy VO2max type interval work was prescribed in the US. We then compensated for this with a shift back towards slightly more endurance work in the 2000's because performances weren't going in the right direction. While this is a generalization, the trend is real. So that's the beauty of studying training history. You will see periods with the "dogma" was super low mileage and vice versa. The dogma shifts.
While I think looking at cell signaling is important and fascinating. You're losing forrest from the trees. Inducing mitchondria biogenesis is important, but what else occurs? Does that translate to a function adaptation? Does it ultimately impact performance? There are too many routes that we can take when ultimately performance is the name of the game.
Overall, as a person who has his foot firmly placed in the coaching and exercise science world, I'd strongly recommend you take a 2nd look at the science first approach. I understand the enthusiasm and reasoning, but it doesn't work. The best exercise scentists and coaches realize this. There's a few great journal articles by Stephen Seiller exploring some of these ideas I'd suggest you start with.
The science first approach, which pops up every now and then generally fails. It's complementary approach that succeeds. As a last aside, think of it like this. In science/research we are constantly discovering/changing/etc. For example if you took the science first approach a decade ago, you'd be all about maximizing VO2max, which we now know is kind of pointless to a degree. Same thing 20 years ago if we looked at lactate. Science shifts as we understand. It's what's great about it, but it's also why a practical training approach can't use that as a basis of the model.
Thanks for the clarification Steve. It's really cool to get your perspective from both domains and I agree on the weak plausibility of the science-first approach being reliable for a wide range of coaches and athletes.
There is a very important point regarding the history of the VO2max era though. If you were a physiologist/coach using the science-first approach in the 90's and thought the data was suggesting that training was all about VO2max then you were misinterpreting the data. That particular suggestion could only be found in woefully lacking psuedo-science exercise performance investigations that latched on to correlations with VO2max because it was an easy variable to understand.
Mechanistic physiology studies at the time emphasized that maximizing the cardiovascular system, not VO2max, was the goal (i.e. increased stroke volume, capillarity, decreased myocyte-RBC diffusion distance). Oxygen transport improvements were the basis, in part, for improvements in whole body VO2 kinetics, critical power and efficiency which ultimately drove performance, and VO2max was just a covariate, related to but not causative, of improved performance (e.g. lots of great work done with marathoners such as Paula Radcliffe; off the chart VO2 kinetics). Thus, the ideal training modality (high volume at critical power) for cardiovascular adaptations should have been the exact opposite of what misguided practitioners implemented at the time as you point out (heavy interval work at VO2max). Indeed, the thoroughbred horse and greyhound are not supreme athletic mammals because of their VO2max per se, but rather their incredible cardiovascular development (same for elite humans).
It was precisely because coaches looked only at the forest (VO2max) and not the trees (cardiovascular mechanisms; central and peripheral) that they got the training paradigm skewed. With that said, you have convinced me that the possible detriments of practitioners applying a misinterpretation of the science far outweighs the benefits of a science-first approach. It is likely easier and far more reliable to "get it right" using a model of collective coaching experience and then refining with the science. I suppose I was suggesting that coaches at the elite level, who ultimately cause paradigm shifts in the field, could benefit from at least re-evaluating their programs from a science-first perspective. A sort of "clean slate" review of the programming if you will.
Anyway very cool topic, thanks for the response, maybe a future post regarding how you integrate your unique academic and coaching backgrounds would spark a lot of interest?
Can you put this in laymans terms? Apply your knowledge to High school track. 12 week season. best plans/workouts for 800/1600/3200 runners. some xc, some basketball, some neither.
Whilst you may consider me a strength coach, I have a massive endurance experience, not through racing, but from Army p.t. and exercises. Long marches, walks and runs under load. Then, in my karate experience, many thousands of hours of high intensity repeat short intervals and sparring bouts.
When it comes to any new experience or skill, I look to see who has repeated success, and then ask to spend time with them in their environment. Hence me asking you so many questions the last 2 years in order to help my endurance athletes.
I also did an endurance physiology MOOC 18 months ago, bug that added little extra practical help to my runners.
Whilst I lack that experience of running races, I do offer our runners a spectrum of training, looking at their needs and also wants.
I could write a similar post to this, about why endurance coaches should stay away from coaching "strength" for runners, as it normally involves lying down and doing "core!
For me, I avoid running over 5km, but I never let that affect my coaching decisions for my athletes.
James,I think you could tell from Magness' body of work that he is not the kind of coach who limits his strength training to planks and crunches. I agree, that is terrible strength training for any athlete. In my opinion coaches who do that are just as uninformed as coaches who advocate mostly high intensity intervals for endurance athletes.
Nice post Steve.
I recently listened to the Tim Ferriss podcast with Pavel Tsatsouline (http://fourhourworkweek.com/2015/01/15/pavel-tsatsouline/) which I found fascinating mainly for this exact reason. His approaches as a strength coach are so different from my academic centric knowledge. While he bases some of his thoughts in German/Russian experiments of the 70s-80s, much of it is from an antifragile approach of tinkering.
I know that I am guilty of similar biases myself. While I try to find expert consensus sometimes finding that consensus is much more difficult than doing a pubmed search on keywords.
Well I am a little late to this party but here goes: Steve, your dissertation on bias is excellent, but unfortunately, you too are are a victim of of such bias. I am a distance coach in his fifties and the one thing I have clearly learned is that not everyone fits into a size 10 shoes. That is precisely the the fundamental problem with both strength and distance coaches alike. I actually had an extensive conversation with Bernard Lagat a couple of days before Millrose games about his mileage. It's a lot less than most people think. That works for him and it works very well. It probably wouldn't work for you and many distance runners.
I give strength coaches more credit than distance coaches, because they they have demonstrated their willingness to embrace new ideas. This is something sadly lacking among most distance coaches. I personally believe that if a distance runner initially has a lot of speed, the Lydiard method works wonderfully. That was the case with Snell and Lydiard's other successes. I also believe the Lydiard method works better if it's not adopted too early in an athlete's carreer.
And the final piece that I will add to this is that modern top-level distance training has evolved well beyond Lydiard. The pace these guy are carrying in practice is pheonomenal. They do that crazy pace more times a week than the Lydiard method. And it's throughout the entire training year. And it's very hard to argue against their methodology, because they have the extraordinary success to show for it. It takes ridiculous speed to win any of the major marathons, because when the big breakaway comes, and the guys start running miles in the 4, 20's and low 4.30's. One cannot hang unless he has the speed. And the crazy part about it, is that they are not dying enough at the end to come back to you. That is the brave new world of distance running that has evolved way above Lydiard and the antiquated training methods of most American coaches.