We’ve lost our way.

We’ve been bamboozled, tricked, fooled.

We’ve been convinced that the final 1% is more important the beginning 99%. In our present world, gadgets, and hacks not only lead the way¬–they are the only way. Cryo-saunas, fasting, super foods, magical supplements, polyphasic sleep, and on and on the list goes.

We live in a world where the details are more important than the foundation. Instead of using common sense and thinking “Hmm, I’m tired, I should get 8 hours of sleep,” we search for the magic hack that will allow us to continue sleeping 5 hours a night but provide us with the elusive more “energy.”  It’s not just the “hack” community that embraces the minutia, the marginal gains cult has sold us a bill of goods. If only we obsesses over the details–the exact softness of our mattress or utilizing, or the precise details of our dinner– we, too, can reach a master class.

For the vast vast majority of us, the hacks, the marginal gains do not matter. As my friend, Brad Stulberg stated, “If you are after performance improvement, and you aren’t sleeping 7-9 hours a night, you might want to rethink your approach.” As Brad alludes to, if we don’t have the basics down, obsessing over the details does us little good.  In coaching terms, this is akin to having a beginning runner hammer out 400-meter repeats as blazing speeds, before having them perform any kind of easy running.

We need a mindset shift, a swing back to the basics, the 99%.

The Basics allow us to connect:

A common “truth” in the coaching world is that the bigger the foundation you build, the greater room for improvement you have. Often, we use the analogy of the house. The better base phase of training that we have, the larger the house we can build. If we nail the basics– the easy running, running mechanics, strength work, etc.– we can build a house with many floors and many rooms. Our solid foundation allows us to build a larger, and sturdier, house. From there, our specific work (the “instagram” worthy workouts) serve to fill the room with the furniture, TV’s, and other minor purchases. SO we can either have a house crammed with the latest computers, TV’s, and gadgets all in one room. Or we can build a house that has the capability of handling much more, and with room to grow.

While this neat little metaphor sounds great in the training world, does it apply elsewhere? In the fabulous book Make it Stick, Peter Brown and his co-authors outline the scientific basis for learning.  They seem to be fans of the house analogy as well:

“Pitting the learning of basic knowledge against the development of creative thinking is a false choice. Both need to be cultivated. The stronger one’s knowledge about the subject at hand, the more nuanced one’s creativity can be in addressing a new problem. Just as knowledge amounts to little without the exercise of ingenuity and imagination, creativity absent a sturdy foundation of knowledge builds a shaky house.”

Brown and his colleagues boiled down this sentiment to one simple fact: “All new learning requires a foundation of prior knowledge.” In other words, the larger the foundation, the more we can connect it with.

If we don’t have a sound diet, then the magical supplement is simply filling holes, not boosting performance. You wouldn’t jump straight to the details of quantum mechanics, without first having a basic understanding of elementary physics. Yet, every day, that’s what we tell ourselves to do.

We are the NFL team that invests in specially formulated recovery foods and drinks, yet wheels in a post-game meal of fried food, beers, and sweets into the locker room. We are the sports team that chooses to take red-eye flights and whose athletes routinely stay out until the early hours of the night, yet we invest in blue light glasses and melatonin concoctions. We are the average joe who decides to foam roll, ice bath, perform elaborate stretching routines in the name of recovery, yet only finds the time to train 3 days a week.

Find the hack. Find the shortcut. Worry about the final 1% that will get us there.

Whether it’s in learning something new, getting our creative juices flowing, or improving our athletic performance, the basics serve as our foundation. The larger our store of foundational knowledge and expertise, the greater ability we have to expand.

Back to the Basics:

The focus on the final 1% has created a dire problem.  If we head down this route, we quickly run out of room for improvement. There are only so many mythical breathing methods, dietary supplements, or even legitimate final touches that we can perform before we reach our limit. That’s the thing with the details, the final 1%, by definition, they don’t account for much. There’s not much room to grow. We quickly max out our returns.

And when this occurs, the temptation is to go further down the rabbit hole. Our search shifts from legitimate concepts that provide small gains to more outlandish concepts that are doomed to fail.

As Dennis Barker, coach to many professional runners stated: “If we really want to improve, we have to focus on the cake, not the frosting.”

Am I saying, don’t sweat the small stuff, ignore all of these potential tiny gains we could be achieving? Of course not.

For the vast majority of us, we aren’t at a point in our progression where it matters yet. If you are a master of your craft, on the way to elite performance, then, sure explore the details. But they will provide a much greater bang for your buck if the foundation is behind them. That’s the secret of the top performers. They nail the basics, coming back to them frequently, and then, only then, do they put the icing on the cake.

For most of us, it’s time to shift focus back to the 99%, not the final 1%.

Marginal gains, hacks, gadgets. It’s all marketing.

Go run 7 days a week. Sleep 8 hours a night. Eat Real food.

That advice doesn’t sell. And it’s a shame.


“Great ideas don’t just spring from the moment of the mental effort involved in trying to come up with one. Their roots extend back months, years, decades into their author’s life; they are products of long formed habits of mind as much as they are of flashes of brilliance….new knowledge is assimilated better, and has more creative possibilities the bigger the store of existing knowledge it is joining. Knowledge loves knowledge.” Ian Leslie, Curious

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    1. […] —SAVE THIS: Forget the hacks, nail the basics. […]

    2. […] Steve Magness: Forget The Gadgets and Hacks: Nail The Basics […]

    3. Balance Guy on December 28, 2016 at 7:59 pm

      So much YES! This is gold. Great work.

    4. […] – noch nicht genug hat, dem empfehle ich zu diesem Thema den kürzlich erschienen Beitrag Forget The Gadgets and Hacks: Nail The Basics von Steve Magness. Weil wir uns viel zu oft ablenken lassen und uns mit dem einen Extraprozent […]

    5. […] with gains being slowly and steadily wrung out of their bodies over extended periods. The popular Science of Running blog says it all so much more articulately than I ever […]

    6. […] Comenzamos un nuevo ciclo anual y siempre es bueno recordar la importancia de lo básico, más aún, con esta tremenda vorágine de información que, muchas veces, tiende a desorientarnos. Presentamos la traducción de una reciente publicación de The Science of Running. […]

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