Thursday 18 May 2017

Appearance vs Essence: Coaching and Counter-Intuition

We know from the history of science that genius initially resides in having seen beyond the appearance of phenomena to their deeper essence. Consider, for instance, Nic Coperinus-- he of heliocentrism fame. And, before him, think about the ancient Greeks, and their ability to employ reason to pierce the veil of appearance concerning the very ground we walk upon (they deduced that it must, in fact, be globular and not flat).

If there is a Copernican figure in the very new (and less consequential) field of endurance training science it would be 1960s antipodean athlete/coach Arthur Lydiard. Making explicit what a generation of increasingly professionalized athletes and coaches had been groping towards in practice, the appearances that Lydiard managed to see beyond, and which had formed the basis of training for distance runners for the entire 60 years of the modern era of sport, was two-fold. Pre-Lydiard, coaches and athletes believed that elegant form was a determinant of performance (when it was not simply and end in itself for early practitioners), and that the best way to train for a particular race distance was to continually practice the precise pace one needed to win, whilst also always being careful not to squander one's finite energies on preparation. The counter-intuitive essence that Lydiard managed, through practice and systematic observation, to grasp was that cardiovascular and metabolic physiology drove ALL distance running performance; and, that the way to improve these processes was not, in the first instance, to fixate on the appearance of form or the specificity of different race paces, but to spend more time simply running.

It is worth noting that Lydiard and the pioneers who began breaking with established training orthodoxy-- people like Czech iconoclast Emil Zatopek, who destroyed world records and vanquished opponents simply by out-training them-- were not, like most coaches and champions from the classical era of the "amateur gentleman", members of the leisured classes; they were proletarians, and thus, being acquainted with hard physical labour, familiar in a practical way with the physical "training effect". In other words, experience (their own and that of their fathers and mothers) would have taught them that a muscle worked hard does become dissipated; it becomes bigger and stronger, at least until age does its inevitable thing. They would have known intuitively that human exercise capacity is obviously not limited by our finite energy stores; that the human body overcompensates for demands placed upon it, such that we have more vital energy the more activity we perform (in the medium term, and with enough nourishment and rest). Unlike their aristocratic predecessors in sport, they would have known that we are not like batteries, whose energy "runs out" in a linear fashion.

All sport is now "professionalized" of course, and the physiological "training effect" discovered in practice by people like Zatopek and explicated in expert layman's terms by Lydiard has been documented in voluminous detail, even giving rise to an entire field of inquiry-- that of "exercise science". Nevertheless, as with the persistence of "flat earth" societies, old appearances can be notoriously hard to dispel-- paradoxically, the more so the more established the science that first pierced them. Lydiard's groundbreaking discovery that general aerobic conditioning is the foundation for success at all distances in the discipline-- formulated in terms of aerobic "base" and race-specific "superstructure"-- is now simply commonsense, such that its specific origins as a practical discovery have all but disappeared from collective memory. And, as "commonsense", it is now as kind of orthodoxy, attractive (and potentially profitable) as a target for enterprising iconoclasts.

Take the persistence of the appearance that training at, or below, goal race pace will, in itself, somehow make goal race pace more attainable (as if running at a previously unattainable pace were a simple matter of skill or familiarization, like "muscle memory", rather than a function of our unseen physiological capacities). This eminently intuitive throwback to the pre-Lydiard era was almost single-handedly responsible for plunging North America running into a 10 year dark age, in which performance relative to historical standards at all levels declined measureably. In the 1990s, coaches everywhere were suddenly questioning the value of racking up large quantities of easy volume and were counselling "quality" (faster running) over "quantity", forgetting Lydiard's singular insight about the relationship between these two kinds of running-- that, in a profound way, "quantity" was itself "quality", by way of the ertwhile mysteries of human physiology. By the turn of the century, the runaway (literally!) success of east African runners, whose coaches had been introduced to Lydiard's higher volume approach to training in the 1960s and had never deviated from it, had made it apparent that North American coaches and athletes had gone profoundly astray. Ten years later, with the restoration of orthodoxy (aided in crucial ways by the unprecedented power of the internet to disseminate best practice-- and here the website played a crucial role), North American performance levels had been restored--and then some (at the high school and university levels, the quality and depth of performance was completely unprecedented)!

In my own coaching practice, not a month goes by that I don't find myself trying to explain the counter-intuitive notion that doing a lot of running at sub-maximal paces (aka easy aerobic running) is the first order of business when it comes to improving performance; that simply trying to run at or faster than some goal race pace as often as possible, as per the common early 20th C approach, will run up against severe limits, and sooner rather than later. Often it requires the full aresenal of phyiological explanations (re: things like capillarization and mitochondrial development) and practical examples to close the deal. And sometimes nothing is sufficient to convince the observer that appearances can be deceptive, that is it not possible to sustain a race pace you have never achieved before simply by "practicing" it over and over again, or by regularly exceeding it in training, in the hope that it will begin to feel easier, and thereby become easier to sustain in a race situation.

The matter of running "form" and biomechanics is trickier but no less frustrating matter. Today's purveyors of "form correction"-- from the barefoot/"minimalists" of a few years ago to the proponents of various running "methods", such as POSE-- do not represent a straighforward throw back to the early 20th C's fetishization of running form as a kind of mash-up of function and aesthetics. They do, however, often mistake appearance for essence, and garner a great deal of attention in peddling illusion. In its proper place, the application of the science of movement can, of course, aid in propelling distance running performance. And the proper place of biomechanical science is within an overall approach that acknowledges the ultimate primacy of physiology over biomechanics. And the fact is, no one has yet been able to establish on an empirical level any independent, causal role for biomechanics in altering the variables that we know to directly determine performance in our sport-- variables that can be grouped under the label of physiological "efficiency", or the ability to take in and utilize oxygen to support movement sustained for periods of longer than about 30 seconds. Master coach and exercise physiologist Jack Daniels proved years ago that even the most experienced eye could not accurately match observed movement patterns (runners' form) with their underlying efficiency, often seeing visual elegance as physiological efficiency where no such connection existed. Daniels' simple but ingenious bit of practical research seemed to show that physiological efficiency could come in a range of different biomechanical packages; that, perhaps, different bodies, when subjected to the same physical demands (in this case, running as much as possible every day for years on end), might find their own biomechanical lines of least resistance regardless of their elegance to the human eye and sensibility.

But what, one might ask, if there IS a biomechanically ideal way to run, albeit yet undiscovered by science? Furthermore, don't the world's best distance runners look different (smoother, more relaxed and powerful) than the average recreational runner, thereby presenting us with a biomechanical ideal for which to strive?

Herein lies the tricky part of the question. Yes, there may well be more or less efficient ways to run; but, we beg the question about the potential value of discovering this truth when we assume that more efficient running form can somehow be learned; when, in other words, we assume that the ability to move more efficiently is a skill that can be acquired through instruction and more careful self-monitoring, as many running "method" practitioners today do. There may be a way to run more efficiently, but it may well be inborn-- i.e. like other facets of running "talent", such as higher baseline MVO2, or general body type. In other words, efficient biomechanics may well be part and parcel of what makes one person better at the sport than another. And running, being something human beings are able to do at an extremely early stage of their physical development (not long after they acquire the capacity to speak in sentences), might well be almost completely hardwired, with any refinements in basic movement patterns happening automatically, from simple repetition. Indeed, in my own coaching experience, I've noticed that young runners become gradually smoother and more refined in their action without any coaching intervention whatsoever (I have never offered "form" cues beyond reminders re: posture and relaxation). Simple repetition and physical maturation seems to be all that's required for young runners to start moving more like mature elites. And, interestingly, even as young runners become smoother, the signature elements of their form tend to remain. Indeed, I've often noticed very distinctive familial similarities within these signatures, further suggesting the extent to which the whole business may be hardwired and largely immutable, for better or worse. So, even if one runner possess more "efficient" form than another, it does not mean that the less efficient runner can improve his/her efficiency simply by copying the movement patterns of the more efficient runner. In fact, in some of the only research conducted on the relationship between form adjustments and physiological economy, it was discovered that attempts to make wholesale, conscious changes in our movement patterns while running actually tends to decrease our physiological economy!

If there is no proven direct link between biomechanics and physiological efficiency in running (such as there almost certainly will be in endurance sports that involve significant skill acquisition, such as swimming and x-c skiing), is there still no good reason to think about our running form? Of course not. We know, for instance, that the same repetition that produces the automatic refinements we see as we progress from beginner to experienced runner can lead, over time, and when combined with the aging process, to muscle imbalances that can result in injury. And there is, of course, no greater threat to running performance than the inability to run at all for extended periods of time. As long as we must rely on our bones, joints, and connective tissues to transmit the capacities of our powerfully trained muscles and cardiovascular systems (which is the very definition of running itself) there will be a role for thinking about, and intervening in, our biomechanics. But, I would argue, the proper focus of that thinking and those interventions should be on maintaining or restoring our own signature ways of moving at their most refined. It is when we attempt to work from an ideal form template, as though there was an ideal "method" of running that could be attained through simple self-monitoring and conscious "correction", that we go awry. Among the many things runners must consider when they break down in injury, and/or when they age, is the way in which their personal biomechanics may have become changed in sub-optimal ways. And, by way of intervention, this may mean having to focus on shoring up or mobilizing certain key musculoskeletal complexes, often through a combination of strength training and therapeutic interventions like massage and physiotherapy. But the goal of any recourse to biomechanics must always be the restoration of the body's own unique adaptations to the challenge of training to race.

To understand running-- or, more specifically, how to become better at running-- is to understand the ways in which the determinants of performance are largely counter-intuitive. And to understand just how counter-intuitive-- how different in essence from their commonsense appearance-- consider for a moment the depth of insight it must have taken for Emil Zaptopek, taking up the sport largely coach-less in war-ravaged Czechoslovakia circa 1948, to break as radically as he did from the intuitively sensible practice of training only at goal race pace, and of conserving one's finite energy as much as possible for expenditure on race efforts (Zatopek was known to run as many as 80 repetitions of 400m at what today would be called tempo, or aerobic threshold pace, as a routine part of his weekly schedule-- hardly conservative where the matter of vital energy is concerned!). Or, consider the maverick genius of Lydiard who, when asked by a young Peter Snell about how to become New Zealand's best 800m runner, counseled 100 easy miles per week for months on end, instead of the more intuitive method of focusing directly on his perceived deficit of finishing speed (Snell would famously take Lydiard's advice and go on to become not only New Zealand's best 800m runners, but one of the greatest middle distance runners the world has ever known). More simply, the next time you are finishing a long aerobic training run, consider the counter-intuitive genius it must have taken to have beeen the first person to link this distinctive feeling of low level, grinding fatigue with improved performance at all-out mile race paces. Consider, in other words, that what we now know to be effective training for distance running-- much of it in defiance of simple appearance-based commonsense-- had first to be discovered, and then to be set against established practice in a fight for widespread acceptance.

And it would seem that the fight between the counter-intuitive genius of figures like Zatopek, Lydiard and, later, Jack Daniels (of Daniels' Running Formula fame) is never completely won. The power of appearance-- in this case, as bound up in the notion that to run faster we must favour training faster over training longer; or, that to become more physiologically efficient we must strive to look more biomechanically efficient-- seems to pose a constant threat to that which is true but not readily apparent. And the defense of essence over appearance is made all the more difficult when the latter retains the advantage of seeming new and innovative-- which the emphasis on "speed work" over "long, slow, distance" did in the early 1990s, and which the turn to biomechanics, by way of shoe fads and method-based running clinics, now does. Today's thinking coach and runner must remain open to genuine innovation but at the same time demand a very high burden of proof from those who would question what we know to be the basics of sound practice, particularly when what's presented as new and exciting looks suspiciously like the old and superseded.


Blogger Nickolas Kosmenko said...

Hey Steve, thanks for writing and posting this! Regarding "easy" running, I recall a conversation we had last year wherein you mentioned that going too slow may actually be counter-productive. Surely what someone like Snell would have been doing on his easy days would still have been a somewhat brisk pace in order to get the heart rate up (maybe 6:00-7:00/mile?) as opposed to slogging along, would it not have been? For those of us who may be taking "easy" to the extreme (i.e., going too slow), would you be able to elaborate more on this topic, demonstrating why there is an optimum range associated with "easy" (if indeed there is)? Thanks!

19 May 2017 at 12:36  
Blogger Steve said...

My pleasure, Nick. In terms of E-pace, Daniels revisions (i.e. his broader ranges) pretty much cover the whole problem. If you're running slower than the very generous slow end of his new E-range, you're definitely going too slowly. Same principle re: the fast end. As for Snell and the other Kiwis, reports of what they did for their E-pace vary; but, since they would have been doing no quality work at all during their builds (as per Lydiard's typical plan), they were likely going pretty steadily (some say as fast as 3:45s, which would be hoofing it on the typical NZL terrain). It's possible to overthink the whole E-pace thing. If doing very high volume, or following very hard days, the slow end of Daniels is absolutely fine. If doing moderate volume and no or few hard sessions, the fast end will be fine. For everything in between, the middle of range is probably best most days. And going too fast is typically a far bigger problem than going too slow.

19 May 2017 at 13:40  
Blogger Nickolas Kosmenko said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

20 May 2017 at 15:28  
Blogger Nickolas Kosmenko said...

Thanks Steve! Would the main problem with going too slow be not getting the heart rate up enough to stimulate the improvements E pace targets? Or is the danger of going too slowly more about reinforcing bad biomechanics?

20 May 2017 at 15:57  
Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks again Steve for the thoughtful observations. As a devout Lydiardian (or is "Lydiardist"?) I read all of this while nodding my head.

The aspect of form/technique is always an interesting topic, and while Paul Williams seemed to run "better" than Paul McCloy, they were very close in abilities. The aesthete or theory-obsessed biomechanist could argue that McCloy could have done better with a makeover, but my suspicions are, as mentioned here, the Newfoundlander "grooved" his efficiency over many years and miles.

Paula Radcliffe and Zatopek are, I think, great examples of runners who employed nice lower-body function with a unique upper-body style that worked wonderfully as a metronome/rhythm maintainer -- something that comes in handy in long races once fatigue sets in.

One final note -- from reading Lydiard, I remember a lot of his advice having to do with qualitative self-analysis. As an example, the aerobic running that underpins everything -- as Steve emphasizes here -- should be done to the point were the runner feels "comfortably tired" (or words like that). Put another way, the runner's body reactions form a tantamount metric as to how the training/stress is being processed. (and this brings up the importance of both effective communication with the coach, and the importance of flexible workout scheduling)

23 May 2017 at 10:29  
Blogger Steve said...

Nick, I think the downside of going too slowly on E-days would be more in terms of opportunity cost/maximization of time on one's feet rather than the risk of injury (few people can/will go "too slow" for any length of time, as DST at Guelph has been known, rightly, to point out). Daniels set his E-pace, somewhat arbitrarily, at the point of maximum cardiac stroke volume. Like Lydiard, however, he also recognized that there were many reasons an athlete might want to go a little slower than this pace on certain days, base on self-assessment and other non-running related considerations (at one point he mentions running with a friend!). My advice is always to use the full Daniels E-range, and to think in terms of maximizing volume before worrying about pace (which means erring a little on the side of slower E-pace).

And thanks, Andrew. Re: your final point, I remember being very surprised to learn that John Walker (as much a product of Lydiard as the great Snell) would abandon a workout after a couple of reps if he didn't feel it was going to be productive. This was SO different from the way I had been trained as a teenager. (Due to having a coach who only knew one way of doing things-- the Fred Foot way, a la Bruce Kidd-- I was taught very early that abandoning a session for any reason was "failure"). It took me a while to learn to get used to the whole idea of "qualitative self-analysis" and to unlearn the habit of ignoring my body in pursuit of "toughness".

23 May 2017 at 12:05  

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