Is running natural or ‘what sex and running have in common…’

The long-standing debate around whether running technique should be ‘taught’ tends to create two oppositional camps – one which believes running technique is natural and thus should not be taught and one which believes that while it is natural it is not necessarily optimal.

Seeing what we want to see…

In my experience, most human disagreements arise over a failure see the gap between our perception of the world and the perception of others – ironic when we consider that we are, by far, the planet’s most cultural and social species. We do not define our terms accurately enough when entering verbal sparring on some argument with others. As a wise man once asked ‘why are no Christian children born to Muslim parents or Muslim children to Hindu parents’. We are the product of all the things that come before us: cultural conditioning at an individual level but we are blind to what these elements are and how they have shaped our views. We possess many cognitive failures prime among which is a predilection for confirming our own biases and so make sense of a chaotic world. Every discussion thne invariably begins by each of us reading into each other’s statements the meanings most supportive of the interpretation we are trying to confirm.

On the topic of whether running should be taught, much confusion cycles around how we interpret a common word like ‘natural’ as well as a lack of understanding of how learning occurs within a cultural species like humans. Many assume that if something is natural then it must not be taught. This distinction is false and based on ideas about motor learning without any foundation in facts.

To ensure balance to this argument, I must point out that the contrasting view that ‘running, whilst natural, must still be taught to develop optimally’ often makes the same theoretical and practical mistakes as their opponents believing that because something ‘must be learned’ that is must be taught through a systematised methodology. This view fails to account for all the informal ways in which human motor learning occurs – namely through cultural transmission (more on this below).

Like sex?

We can help our understanding by shedding the loaded term ‘natural’ and instead employ the terms ‘innate’ and ‘learned’ to explain our abilities and behaviours (Henrich 2017). I used to view these two terms as oppositional but they are not: many human behaviours are simultaneously innate and learned. The assumption with ‘innate’ or what we previously referred to as ‘natural’ abilities is that they ‘come with the package’. This is obviously not the case as human infants can neither walk nor run fresh from the womb. Joseph Henrich provides a delightful example by pointing out that no society – no matter how isolated – only hop and crawl. We all, without exception, learn to walk and run – so the ability is innate but at the same time is must be learned. If we are still not convinced Henrich asks us to consider sexual intercourse as another example explaining that throughout history many have had to figure out how it works on the fly (!) or ‘most couples eventually figure out what to put where and for how long, at least well enough for natural selection’s purposes’. Yet anyone reading this will likely agree that sexual intercourse is a learned skill – even if it is certainly innate and natural as well. How we learn then becomes the crucial question and here we can continue the comparison with intercourse: some things feel right and other things not so much. In other words, our sensory systems are geared to provide the necessary feedback to refine skills as they develop.

When it comes to running it is by now well-known that modern footwear – despite advantages it can provide – dampens and distorts the sensory input we receive. It is also now well-established that many modern habits such as excessive sitting, provide sensory input which directly sabotages the development of motor skills related to running. This way our innate ability to run does not develop as well as it could be. The long-term solution for our species is simply to rid ourselves of the culture of sedentarism and insist that our children run in footwear that does not compromise sensory feedback and anatomical shape of the foot during the crucial development year. Such a policy would – within a generation – probably almost eliminate the need for technique coaching and reduce the number of runners who need to see therapists by a significant margin. It would not remove all injury because technique errors do not cause every injury – stress, poor training habits, nutrition and many other factors would have to be separately attacked. But a very easy win exists here which our culture currently cannot exploit as the vested interest groups it would damage have no incentive to support such policies short-term and they are the groups setting the course for our sport right now, dominating the debate and acting as arbiters of what is ‘sound advice’ and what is ‘crackpot’. The wolf is guarding the running sheep.

How is the only question

For those who have already missed the crucial development window, we can nevertheless take hope just as someone who has poor ‘intercourse skills’ is not forever doomed in the bedroom. There is no question whether we should teach running technique – only how it must be taught. For our children the solution can simply be ‘better footwear, less sitting’ to improve this learning. For us late-comers who already have deformed feet and heavily ingrained suboptimal motor habits programmed into us when we run, the path must be different. Because running is innate much more care must be taken when changing it the actions involved in the movement are so reflexive and automatic that tampering can be often making people worse. Essentially you can think of what happens as ‘writing a layer of good code on top of false code’ instead of rewriting the code from scratch. The solutions we seek lie in how members of a cultural species (us) learn movement from observing role models around us. I will turn to this topic in my next post.



Culture: what it means for your running

Image result for the secret of our success

I want to get back to the basics of this blog: my contention that Culture is the central factor to consider when you think about running in any way. When you ask yourself ‘how should I train’, ‘why do we train the way we do’, ‘why is one runner more successful than another or why is one running country more successful than another’ or even ‘why is there such disputes about nutrition and footwear’ and similar questions, it always comes back: the prevailing Running Culture.

The Secret of Our Success

I could write an entire book about Joseph Henrich’s new book ‘The secret of our success – how culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species and making us smarter’, so let me begin by trying to explain the incredible relevance of the central contention of the book: that culture has co-opted evolution and now drive natural selection not just of our genes but of our ideas. That our unique human advantage is not that we are great throwers, great runners or great tool-makers but instead that we have adapted to a form of social learning – transmitted through Culture – which allows individual humans to learn things, even our brightest minds could never figure out in one lifetime.

Throughout ‘The Secret of Our Success’, Henrich provides evidence of how individuals or small groups of humans fail to come up with solutions in the face of new crises – such as being marooned in the Arctic. Even groups of hundreds of trained men do not suddenly figure out how to hunt seal or build igloos. Instead our cultural solutions and artifacts are created as the results of multiple minor – often accidental – discoveries, which Henrich calls ‘Cultural Packages’ – that eventually become combined into our more advaned know-how.

You see A and B but not A to B

For this reason humans are great mimickers. We are such great mimickers that it impairs our decision-making in many strategic games and scenarios where we can often be outperformed by Chimpanzees (a less cultural species, less prone to ‘making mistakes’ by mimicking). Instead of trusting basic logic or our own intuition, we ‘follow the others’. While this can have negative consequences, it is a tendency that has kept our species alive. The families who thrived and were healthy because of how they prepared a certain type of plant or fish before eating it, were copied more frequently. The people who copied the thriving family had more kids and their cultural norms (how to prepare the plant or fish) were transmitted to the next generation. All this happens without any causal knowledge on part of the families of ‘why it works’ (such reasoning tends to come much later as the science becomes available). Without understanding why something works, we are inclined to copy it if it seems to be successful. We copy based on the perceived prestige of the individuals, we observe and prestige is a topic I will return to in much more detail to explain how we learn from other runners and coaches, why it’s generally a good thing and what pit-falls you must avoid due to your ‘pre-programming’. You can say we ‘take it on faith’ and our entire species is inclined to have a low tolerance to people who break cultural norms because of this subconscious understanding that our main advantage as a species is our ability to transmit solutions beyond the wisdom of the individual through our Culture.

Who is a good transmitter of cultural information? Who is not?

If you are a keen student of our sport, you will have noticed that most training methods follow the basic course charted above. Knowledge about ‘how we do things’ are transmitted culturally between coaches and coaches, runners and runners and runners and coaches through generations – often subconsciously ‘copied’ by observing the prestige of an individual measured generally by their success and other desirable personal qualities. Scientists later try to establish in laboratories why it works (often unsuccessfully as it is multifactorial, complex and not easily reducible to random-controlled trials or other single and low-variable experiments).

To be unsccessful we therefore need to understand:

  • How does this cultural transmission work?
  • What are the drawbacks of this cultural learning?
  • Who should I choose to learn from?
  • How has cultural evolution hijacked and redirected natural selection and what effect has it had on our genes? How does this shed completely new light by many views held by people dealing with ‘traditional’ natural selection and the naturalistic fallacy

Joseph Henrich sums up our problem:

“Relatively early in our species lineage, surviving by one’s wits alone without leaning on any cultural know-how from prior generations meant getting outcompeted by better cultural learners, who put their efforts into focusing selectively on what and from whom to learn.”

This is a pretty clear message for runners and coaches: if you want to be successful do not try to ‘figure it all out on your own’ but instead lean on the cultural know-how from previous generations even when it is uncertain why their methods work. Put your effort into focusing on ‘what’ and ‘from whom’ to learn – essentially Arthur Lydiard’s advice that ‘look at the athletes of a coach – you’ll end up like them’. Advice that throws up many pit-falls in itself because the links between current training and short and long-term training results are often opaque – take, for instance the example of Mo Farah moving onto Alberto Salazar shortly before his big breakthrough. Salazar as a coach receives most of the attention although the foundation was probably put in place by his old coach Alan Storey. This is not an isolated story but instead very common across many sports. Sometimes the coach has nothing to do with the success (in fact, he may have made the athlete a bit worse but it was inconsequantial).

The next instalments on this blog will deep-dive into these questions and what we can adopt from this understanding as humans as a cultural species to make better choices as coaches and athletes.







Did the Running Boom kill the sport of Running?

In it’s success lay the seeds of failure. With his emphasis on expanding the reach of his beloved activity and bringing it to the masses, Lebow undermined running as a sport. His focus on recruiting elite runners as a marketing tool diminished their value as athletes, while his stubborn refusal to pay them fairly for their efforts disrespected their achievements. As the event grew in size and revenue, the racing itself became an afterthought, with more attention paid to participating than winning. This disconnect-between finishing the race and racing the race-significantly affected the way people approached running and embraced the boom. Soon it would spell the sport’s doom.” – Cameron Stracher, King of the Road, 2013

The above paragraph from Cameron Stracher’s book ‘King of the Road’ struck and almighty chord with me, playing a tune I have long been humming in my own head. As a recreational activity running is booming. As a sport it is dying or at least meandering along – disrespected and destitute – getting a small brush-off every 4-years when the Olympics roll along. Cameron Stracher makes many salient points in his book.  I will talk to them in turn before sharing my concerns and my suggestions on how to get out of this situation.

Background: running more than a sport, and always was

Running is different from most other sports: as a crucial part of natural human locomotion and one of our physical competitive advantages. Soccer, golf and GAA could disappear tomorrow and after a few generations, none would miss them. Running on the other hand remains essential for basic human survival and functioning even when not pursued as a sport. This perhaps goes some way to explaining while it is almost a ‘dumping ground’ for other sports in many respects.

Firstly, running serves as conditioning for the majority of other disciplines: roadwork for boxers, running practice for team sports and cross-training for swimmer and cyclists. Secondly, whenever a sport wants to raise funds, they put on a fun run to do so.

We must be doing something wrong in running because all the more affluent sports around us are raising extra money through our sport and we often (but not always) get little in return for our efforts. Running clubs do not organise charity soccer matches to raise fund for their juniors or some cause the running club is committed to. They don’t put on a golf tournament to raise money to send their junior athletes on a trip. And so on. But the opposite is often true.

The poor businessman on the block

What was more surprising was how little the major road races took advantage of these marketing opportunities. There was a big money to be made in corporate sponsorships, and yet running never profited in the way that golf and other less compelling sports did. Today, it costs around $2 million to sponsor the New York City Marathon, one of the biggest running events in the world, while even the smallest PGA golf tournament rakes in at least that amount from its title sponsor, and the PGA Tour earns about $1 billion a year. – Kings of the Road

I am not qualified to speak to the business craft of every major road race organiser in the world but everyone knows that just as athletics clubs may not be as good as their competitor sports in bringing money into their systems, so elite runners earn a fraction of what soccer players, basketball players, golfers, tennis players etc. will earn over a career.

Today, television rights rule the financial roost and running has had appallingly poor coverage over the last decades through that medium – few events are televised and those that do reach our screens, tend to be poorly produced, heavily edited and focused more on human interest than the sport itself with the notable exception of BBC’s Olympic and Championship coverage.

The glamour of golf

Reinforced by a belief that the sport is not compelling, this trend persists:

TV executives seem to think running is just about putting one foot in front of the other, which doesn’t make for dramatic television, even as they broadcast hours of soft-bellied men walking to retrieve a dimpled white ball as if it were the most exciting thing in the world. – King of the Road

When you truly understand the sport of running, there is plenty to enjoy throughout a road, track, hill or cross-country race and all that is needed is clever placement of cameras, influx of relevant statistics and information throughout and educated commentary (meaning not endless recitations of ‘this is the point where the athletes really feel the burn’ or ‘oh, the wheels have come off’). Instead running event coverage outside of the Olympics tends to be reduced to a montage of interviews with people dressed up as Superman or the Eiffel Tower, something sure to inspire the next generation to pick up the sport in favour of soccer.

This has led to a devaluation of the performances of our best athletes where hardly anyone in the country can mention the top national competitors nor can they understand how their performances relate internationally. On the other hand, they likely now who plays right back for Wrexham in the Fifth Tier of British football. They can recite the rugby rulebook by heart but are unable to distinguish whether running a 15 minute 5 km time is any better than a 4 hour marathon (it is).

Even among those running, too many  believe their three weekly efforts equate to the discipline put in by someone running a sub-80 minutes or a sub-70 minute half-marathon simply out of ignorance of what it takes to achieve those types of marks. It is invariably written off as ‘talent’ by those who never tried running every day with focus and discipline for prolonged periods. The fundamental aspects of that must be present in a sporting culture such as a common language, understanding of basic training principles and literacy in paces and distances is often completely lacking. In large part because running is an activity we often take up on our lonesome at first. Only a few move on to pursue a formal education. This is the reverse of most other sports and physical educations which begin by teacher-led instruction in the basics before the ‘birds are allowed to fly free’.


Re-establishing the knowledge and respect around the sport of running and the top athletes within the sport, requires more than money. The legendary Frank Shorter, after having played a leading role in bringing down the hypocritical ‘amateur’ system – or ‘shamateur’ as labelled by ‘Boston’ Billy Rodgers, expressed new concerns in 1984:

“Running seems to be taking on more of the characteristics of professional sport, and that may not be in its best interest.” He pointed to the rise of agents as a factors in diminishing competition (because they pick and choose their clients’ races and avoid many head-to-head match-ups), and he foresaw a time when the best runners did not compete for the love of the sport, but the love of money. That time would sooner even than he predicted. – Kings of the Road

History essentially played a cruel trick on Frank Shorter. Once money began flowing into running it did not propel American and Western running forward but instead drew the East Africans onto the stage where they quickly usurped the dominance of traditional running nations and established a hegemony to which there now seems no end in sight. No more ‘Boston Billys’ and ‘Chairmen of the Boards’ dominate the international running scene and serve as role models for the next generations of aspiring European, American and Antipodean runners. If they want to back a winner, they must pick their favourite Kenyan or Ethiopian (some nations take this a step further and simply nationalise a top East African athlete but it is doubtful this has any positive effect on that country’s youth development and rather likely further detract from the attraction of the overall sport). The relatively low earnings in running compared to other sports and geopolitical realities fuel this trend:

Today the $50,000 offered for winning and elite marathon is about the same as atop baseball player makes each time he comes to bat. For an African kid raised on the veld, with running in his genes and his culture, the sum is enough to get him dreaming. For a talented American kid, it’s peanuts. Thus we still live in a society in which running is the default sport for kids who can’t play football, baseball, or basketball (or, increasingly, soccer or lacrosse) and the few fanatics who, through luck or good coaching, discover their muse. In a country increasingly obsessed with the almighty dollar, the latter group grows smaller and smaller. – Kings of the Road

So in running we have enough money to attract the East Africans to trounce us but so little that our sport is largely filled up with the rejects from other sports with a few exceptions. This is the picture we need to reverse. More money can play part of the solution in attracting more youngsters to take up the sport in the West (while money may be dirty, we do bring our kids up in a capitalist society telling them that cash is king – we cannot well expect them to suddenly drop this fundamental tenet the moment they lace up their running shoes).

More than money to make the world go around

But money does not CREATE champions:

Money was not the magic pill that would bring gold medals in the distance events. Shorter won his without a dime, and no American has won one since. The lack of money, in fact, made it possible to run without strictures, to focus on the sport itself without the distractions of business. Shorter, Rodgers, and Salazar all ran at a time when the hunger for achievement coexisted with real hunger. The two complemented each other, perhaps more than money ever could. – Kings of the Road

The decline of Western running standards did not come from the influx of money, it merely accelerated it. ‘But we’re not in decline’, some will offer. Cameron Stracher, like I, disagree:

It’s been thirty years since Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers and Alberto Salazar ruled the roads. Today, more people run than ever before. At last count, there were forty million in the United States alone. Yet rather than spawning a new generation of champions, as it might in another sport, this phenomenal growth as slowed the median pace in the typical race. The average time in the marathon, for example, has gone from 3:32:17 in 1980 to 4:16:34 in 2011. It has coincided with the decreasing competitiveness of US runners. – Kings of the Road

On not only the masses have contributed to this decline:

Even among the elite, there has been a significant decline in performance. Consider that in 1978, more than two thousand runners broke the magic three-hour barrier in the Boston Marathon. In 2012, with a field six times as large, only about five hundred runners broke three hours. At the Falmouth Road Race in 1982, a finishing time of thirty-six minutes was good enough for only eighty-ninth place. But in 2012, the same time would have earned ah runner thirty-second place. Meanwhile, fewer than one-third of the men who qualified for the US Olympic marathon trials in 2012 would have met the qualifying time in 1984. At the 2000 Olympics, only one American met the Olympic standard, and he finished sixty-ninth. The story is the same at nearly every event along the distance ladder. With the exception of a few standouts, US runners cannot match the times of their earlier progenitors and stand little chance on the international circuit. – Kings of the Road

The famous Falmouth road race describes the change in the running world in a microcosm:

Masya’s win was the second victory by an African there in a string that, since 1991, reads like this: Kenya, Kenya, Kenya, Kenya, Kenya, Kenya, Morocco, Morocco, Kenya, Kenya, Kenya,Kenya,Kenya,Kenya,Kenya,Kenya,Kenya,Ethiopia, Ethiopia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Kenya.Indeed, since Salazar’s victories in 1982, only one American man has won Falmouth <sic> and no American-born man has won a marathon in New York City, Boston, Chicago, or Los Angeles, or any other major distance race. No American-born male distance runner has been ranked first in any event, and none has taken home an Olympic gold medal. – Kings of the Road

I have a few more graphics I often use to illustrate this which I’ll go through in my long-planned article the ‘Decline of the West’. But I began this article with a simpler question than ‘why we are worse’: did the Running Boom kill the sport of running and through that our ability to compete internationally with the East Africans and, to a lesser extent, the Japanese.

The culprits

In his epilogue in ‘Kings of the Road’, Stracher examines the reasons behind our ‘fall from grace’:

In general there has been a movement away from running as a sport where people run fast, to running as an activity done for fitness or social purposes. For this we can blame, in part, the people who cultivated the first running boom: the men whose enthusiasm for the sport drove millions to the roads. In popularizing running, they inadvertently dumbed it down, celebrating the participant over the winner.

The celebration of participation over winning stands has always seemed to me the saddest aspect of our modern running culture leading to an ignorance of the mechanisms of the sport and disrespect for the efforts of the top competitors.

The elite runners drew the masses to the roads, but once they were there, the elites were forgotten. Today it is common for finishers in a major race not to know – and not to care – who won. What counts is the personal narrative of adversity and achievement. There are no heroes, there are only goody bags and fancy flavoured water.

The dominance of the personal narrative above all else goes far beyond running, however. Yuval Noah Harari explains brilliantly in his newest book (Homo Deus) how the last century and a half has been dominated by the religion of Humanism which is slowly but surely replacing all other earlier religions and belief systems. Humanism* measures everything we do by ‘how the individual feels’. If something ‘feels right’ then it is right or to quote Harari:

While theists worship God. Humanists worship humans. <sic> Everything that happens in the cosmos is judged to be good or bad according to its impact on Homo Sapiens. – Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari

* In fact, humanism is currently being replaced by a worship of information flow wherein experiences do not matter in themselves but only matter as much as they impact on the flow of information between humans through our modern technologies in particular. I’ll explore the implications of this in future articles.

Inevitably a world dominated by a humanist world view and rampant neo-liberal individualistic philosophies of society building will honour the individual’s narrative over the collective narrative of the sport (liberal humanism defeated the competing doctrine of evolutionary humanism and social humanism during the 20th century). What does it matter that the sport declines of the top runners are faster as long as I improve my PB by 2 minutes? That is all that matters and our media delivers what it’s customers want:

This shift is reflected in the media, which used to cover running as a sport but now treats it as a lifestyle event. Even publications dedicated to running have changed their emphasis from reporting on racing to providing tips on diet and fitness. Gone are the days when Joe Henderson, Derek Clayton, Kenny Moore, and Amby Burfoot – competitive runners all – wrote about who won, who lost, and how to get faster. Now we have articles about how to get six-pack abs and which exotic location to choose for a running vacation. No doubt the editors know their audience, but the audience is also influenced by the editors. – Kings of the Road

Anyone who reads running publications (I have largely stopped) will have noticed this trend. Instead of educating our target market, we dumb information down to what we think their level should be. The Running Times – whose editor Jonathan Berkely I had the pleasure to meet – was one of the last bastions of serious running reporting. Unsurprisingly, the magazine is no longer published.

Stracher believes this has also led the public to embrace trends that are antithetical to speed:

Meanwhile, ‘penguins’ – runners so slow they waddle when they walk – celebrate finishing as if it were a victory. Finally, we have the New Age gurus such as Jeff Galloway – a former elite athlete who should know better -teaching that walking in the middle of a race will make runners faster. Their enthusiasm is admirable, but it won’t bring home any medals. – Kings of the Road

It is refreshing to read writing of such candour. Those who care nothing for medals or the performance of our athletes will not care for a single word in this post. But for those among us who would like to restore meaningful competition to the world stage between East Africa and the rest of the world, it must serve as a slap across the face and a wake-up call to look at our running culture and begin to counter the ideas promulgated at the birth of the boom in the late seventies and early eighties.

All about culture

We can change this story if we can change the culture and we do not need to continue our quest for the ‘magical ingredient’ that makes Kenyans so superior:

Although the debate continues to rage over what makes African distance runners so good, there are no genetic or racial mysteries here. Instead, the answer is the same across continents: a group of like-minded athletes bound together in a culture that fosters their sport. – Kings of the Road

In other words: success depends on the quality of our running culture. Ours is demonstrably in decline. But it’s a positive message: its easier to change culture than to change genes. If the power was in my hands alone I would start here:

  • Stop celebrating participation at the expense of competing and winning. Participation can be lauded but not at the extreme level it currently is
  • Better educated coaches and more educational articles for beginners that lead beginners towards viewing running as a sport instead of a ‘sacrifice’ or simply a hobby
  • More coverage of running as a sport as apart from a circus on TV, in magazines and other media
  • Push back the marathon fanaticism and encourage beginners to learn the trade on shorter distances instead of throwing them into the marathon at a time where they can barely get through it at a decent speed

Actions follow….ideas!

I began this blog by writing ‘actions follow desires’ because this tenet represents the key to understanding the importance of placing a cultural context around an analysis of any topic – including running. If we want to understand ‘what we are doing’, we naturally look back to the root cause of those behaviours – the belief or desire generating those actions.

At a biomechanical level, we need to adjust our terminology ever so slightly. Traditionally our motor actions and the muscle activity generating these actions were perceived as controlled by some ‘Overseeing Will’. Today, we understand this not to be the case. Rather we have found that our muscle activity is triggered, almost entirely subconsciously, by the expression of an idea or a thought – usually shaped as a desire or an intent to accomplish something. For example, your subconscious may register a rock flying towards you triggering the ‘idea’ or ‘intent’ to ‘move out of the way’. Likewise children’s insatiable appetite for exploration triggers many thoughts and intents activating the wide variety of movements upon which adult motor skills are developed.

The Darkness That Comes Before

Just as we are blind to many of the beliefs that control our daily actions, so we are largely unaware of the constant stream of ideas that generates muscle activity and then motor action (or simply ‘movement’). This causes many challenges in the teaching of and correcting of movements including the skill of running. You see: your brain has a very strong ‘idea’ of what the label ‘running’ means. It has similarly strong notions about getting up from a chair, walking or standing. The moment I, or any other coach or trainer, tells you to ‘stand up’ or ‘run’, then this idea is spontaneously generated in your subconscious in parallel with all the muscle firing patterns your brain has come to associate with this idea. So if I tell you to ‘run without tensing your calves so much’ or ‘run with your neck more relaxed’, I am fighting a losing battle because your brain has a firm idea of the activation pattern it needs for the ‘idea’ of running.

In one of my favourite non-fiction book series, author R. Scott Bakker presents the reader with a sect of monastic monks who study what they call ‘The Darkness That Comes Before’  where the darkness represents the causes of our actions and ‘comes before’ refers to the fact that our actions are dictated by what automatic behaviours our past has inculcated in us. Because we are essentially blind to this darkness we cannot recognise what ideas are triggered to match what movements nor are we generally conscious or aware of how we deviate from the optimal movement in each situation. The second part of this ignorance – of our own flaws – comes not just from being unaware of what ideas our subconscious holds but also because we lack a standard to compare with. In addition, even if we understood the ideal standard movement – such as the ideal running technique for a particular situation – we generally lack to observational skills to recognise the deviations.

The environment provided by Mother Nature in traditional hunter-gatherer society would have circumvented this limitation because failure to meet the standard would have been constantly punished – move incorrectly and harm or discomfort would follow. As an additional advantage everyone around you would display near-optimal movement patterns because they grew up in a similarly optimal environment for motor skill learning. The human brain is flooded with so-called ‘mirror neurons’ which allow us to very effectively replicate the behaviours of others (even animals). This advantage turns against us in a society where the majority of the population display dysfunctional movement patterns – your mirror neurons are being fed junk on a daily basis. We also no longer have a perfect environment for learning without external feedback from others – chairs and cushioned shoes are often our main interaction points with the world around us.

The wreckage of modern culture- us

While technology has wrecked this disaster upon us, some of our modern inventions can help alleviate the damage: the camera lens, preferably coupled with an observer who understands what deviations he is looking for and how to address them (a coach). ‘The camera never lies’ is an old adage holding very true for the observation of athletic movement. Because we are blind to the ‘darkness’ (the causes of our poor movement) that ‘come before’ and we do not know what standard to aspire to nor how to recognise how we deviate, we need help. The ‘shock treatment’ method is to remove the filters of modernity – no more chairs, no more cushioned shoes, no more sedentary living. This approach has some merits but is not totally practical for most people and also violates the most important rule in coaching (to my mind) – ‘stochastic tinkering’, a primary directive that all changes we make to athletes should be small and incremental. You cannot simply release a domesticated animal back into Nature full hog – and man is today the ultimate domesticated Beast.

We must reintroduce him gently into the optimal natural environment for his learning – such is the scale of his dysfunction. Coaches can observe how we move on camera and show us the truth allowing making us aware of the deviations of our actions from the optimal action we should be making. The knowledgeable coach can further explain the full chain of events (‘The Darkness’ turned to light) causing the deviations you see. It is tempting to look simply at the ‘deviations’ and attack them head on. But the deviations often have root causes that are part of a causal chain going back many steps. When trying to fix movements, we are better off going as close to the root as we can. A coach may notice, for instance, that entire upper body is not ideally placed for mechanical advantage when you run – shoulders are rounded, chest constricted and head slopes forward and down. We could attack the muscles and joints involved directly and try to move them back what we consider the ideal position but this approach falls short of tracing the problem back to the root. We arrive there by asking ‘why do we see this shape’? One answer may be ‘the shoulders are rounded and the chest constricted because of the forward head position’. This prompts another question (familiar to Six Sigma practitioners as the ‘5 whys technique’): ‘why is the head in this position?’. Knowing that this athlete is an office-worker and having observed them sit, the coach may deduce ‘because the runner spends most of his day with his head in this position and the brain thus considers this the default position’.

Wrong ideas? no way out!

Now we have a working hypothesis that seems to trace the problem back to a habitual pattern strong enough to make itself known in a variety of movements including running. The hard work begins here: breaking the pattern. A few simple exercises can raise the awareness of the athlete (enlightening the darkness) allowing them to correct ‘on the fly’ when they feel a deviation. But again this approach has limits because your brain’s ‘idea’ of posture is wrong (it includes a non-optimal default head position). Over-riding the idea is forcing a tug of war between the conscious and the subconscious brain meaning we have merely built a compensation on top of a wrong idea. You are actively trying to override the subconscious program instead of changing the subconscious program at its source. Because the subconscious programming – your ideas about what things should be – are created by habit they can also only be broken at that level. This means we need to establish a new normal but removing the habitual sitting pattern and replacing it with another. But the habit itself is a product of the environmental signals. If I sit in front of a computer all day that is in a certain position then I will continue to revert to the incorrect position. Conscious awareness will merely allow me to constantly fight this urge but it does not change the default. To change the default we must instead change the environmental stimuli that creates the idea in the first place. Subconscious routines are believed to have evolved as the primary driver of our daily activities because they take less energy (thus are more efficient) than higher level brain functions. This makes sense as you would otherwise need to bring your attention to every little movement you make (such as taking a cup out of the cupboard).

As you will quickly notice constantly bringing your attention to the execution of this task is onerous. Rather if you suspect you pick up the spoon incorrectly, why not place the spoons in a cupboard and in a precise position in that cupboard that forces you to pick it up correctly? This is the corrective strategy most likely to result in sustainable long-term changes when it comes to deviations in running technique and movement in general such as a sub-optimal default head position. This could mean changing the position of the computer, adapting a dynamic desk to a place that encourages the optimal position to emerge or to

Today, we see a lot of effort going into ‘changing your brain’s perception of centre’. This is very laudable and as general movement practice probably not a bad practice. But we cannot be certain of the transfer from general training to the specific movement because your brain has an ingrained idea of that particular skill. So by doing head position drills you may be able to educate your brain correctly of the central position of the head and attain perfect range of motion. But you have no guarantee that your brain will recognise this position as the correct one of the already ingrained skill of running. If you cannot attain the head position then you must obviously work on that first and then setup an environment in which you will naturally chose to adopt the desired position.

How action really ‘acts’

The real title of this post should be ‘ideas and action follow stimuli simultaneously’. A much less satisfying name but closer to how we actually act – in life or sport. We can simplify the steps like this:

  1. Our body receives a STIMULI (‘alarm clock rings’)
  2. A subconscious REACTION (‘jump out of bed’) is triggered in absolute parallel with the formation of an IDEA (‘I must get out of bed’)
  3. The IDEA reaches our conscious mind after the fact but we have the illusion that the IDEA triggered the ACTION (which was in reality a REACTION)

This means that the ACT of running is not an ACTION as much as a REACTION to whatever stimuli trigger us to engage in this physical activity. John Dewey defined these REACTIONS as HABITS in a broader sense than we normally interpret the word, a key definition for trainers and coaches to understand: ‘an acquired predisposition to ways or modes of response.’ 

So habits are responses acquired throughout our life as means to perform certain intentions that we label ideas – i.e. ‘I must perform a jump (HABIT/ACTION) to cross this stream (INTENTION/IDEA)’. We wish to believe that simply by applying our DESIRE or changing the PURPOSE of our action we can improve the quality of that jump. The problem is that the moment we think of our ACTION as jumping we have already recruited the faulty habit that is already in place around your brain’s IDEA of what a jump is.

What solution have we then when most traditional methods of movement intervention and coaching are not fully able to over-ride the HABITS (again ‘the Darkness’) the comes before our ACTIONS? A new field of practice has emerged called Neurodynamics a – a new approach to the study of movement – pioneered by professor Theodore Dimon – who summarises the whole problem I hope you are coming to realise in this post:


The natural response to dealing with these problems (ed: our bodies not functioning as well anymore as they used to ) is to perform movements in order to strengthen muscles that are weak or to stretch and release muscles that are tight. Yet anyone who tries these methods is ultimately disappointed for the simple reason that the body works as a natural or atuomatic system , and methods focused on correcting it cannot restore the naural workings of the total system or help us to understand why it isn’t working naturally. Because we have not yet understood what the problem is, we blindly pursue methods that promise various benefits and provide temporary relief. But no amount of exercise, bodywork, or stretching is going to put the body right if we don’t first understand how it’s designed to work and how to move in ways that are consistent with our natural funcitoning.’ – Neurodynamics, 2015

He goes on to tease us with the solution

The key to natural movement, as I will show in this book, is not to strengthen or relax muscles, train the body, or correct movement patterns, but to understand how the body is designed to function naturally, how to restore it when it is interfered with and, ultimately, how to use it at a more conscious level in everyday living.’

Neurodynamics and Neo-humans

While it goes beyond the scope of this already long article to go through the practical fixes of neurodynamics (I recommend purchasing the book), you can identify the key aspects to over-riding the HABIT/IDEAS that your motor actions are now slaves to. First of all note ‘interfered with’. We are a natural system in an increasingly man-made world. Our bodies are thrust out of their evolutionary context and into narrow shoes and the low-gravity environment of chairs. We are bombarded by alien signals in excessive amounts – EMF, work stress, manufactured food stuff, toxins and more. All of these signals trigger HABITS/IDEAS that are not correct – ‘interfering with the natural function’ of your body.This has happened to such a point that the majority of our ideas about how we should be moving are simply incorrect at a cultural and social level. Because our ideas are incorrect our treatment modalities are also misguided and misdirected. Many of our doctors, coaches and therapists have lost knowledge of what a natural human being should look, move and act like because they deal only with ‘neo-humans’ (products of unnatural modern processes).

We have a conception that the current ‘normal’ is ‘natural’ when in fact current ‘normal’ is ‘unnatural’. A prime example is our understanding of the human foot as pointed out by the BTR coaching system, Lee Saxby and Dr Dan Liebermann in recent years and Dr Dudley Morton before them: we believe a foot with a big toe pointing inwards is ‘normal’ and thus do not act on the assumption that this represents an unnatural state – the big toe is in fact out of position because it was ‘interfered’ with. The modern fix is to manage this ‘normal state’ instead of ‘understanding how the foot is designed to function naturally’ to rephrase Dimon’s words. This ties into the prevailing cultural belief among too many medical practitioners that we are ‘born broken’ rather than ‘born largely perfect’ (the latter being the case – of course with the amendment that we are born ‘nearly perfectly adapted to our ancestral rather than our current environment’).

A quick to do list

I will end on that note and why I know it may be frustrating for those who prevailed with this long post to not yet have clear answers, I refer to the book and upcoming articles as well as the below quick summary:

  • When something is not working, do not try to change it through force of will but first ask the question ‘how is my body intended to work in this situation’ (i.e. ‘how am I meant to execute running if my body had not been interfered with by modern life’)
  • Ask ‘now that I know the natural state what tools are out there which I can use to return myself to that state’
  • Keep in mind that stimuli from the environment writes the code of our software – the simplest thing to do is to remove as many harmful modern stimuli from your environment as you can safely do in a step by step manner (wear shoes with less interference, stop wearing sun-glasses all the time, sit less, use your technology less, do not expose yourself to unnatural light frequencies, do not eat processed foods and so on).


I: ‘Would have’, ‘could have’, ‘used to’

I: ‘Would have’, ‘could have’, ‘used to’

I was not surprised when I saw a recent study showing a strong link between psychological stress and injury – stronger than many physical factors we would more readily attribute as primary causes.

The lack of presence

We now live in a world where the present occupies less and less space and thoughts of the past and future more and more. This leads to an unhealthy state of mind, which affects the body and its physical functions directly, where we essentially reject the present moment because we do not like it. We prefer what we used to have or used to be able to do or we cling to what we may become or what we hope to  do some day. This frame of mind sends a powerful signal to your brain telling it that ‘I don’t like my life – turn it off already’. It is a state of perpetual stress where healing processes stop and the body does what it is told – extricates you as fast as possible from a life you clearly do not care to live. After all if you do not want to be in the present then you do not want to be anywhere. The past and future are products of the present,as Eckhart Tolle memorably summarised, in his book, ‘The Power of Now’. Every memory you carry was created in the present moment and every future situation will happen in the present. When we resist it, so the wisdom goes, we resist ‘what is’ and can trigger powerful autoimmune actions. Our bodies basically turn against themselves because resisting the present generally has a link to not liking yourself, where you are, and what you currently represent. Dare I call it self-hate? *

* And dare we remember how much our current technology pours fuel on this fire, always pulling us away from what is in front of us in favour of some bright red dot?

Your body – your healer

I have seen injuries heal, and read stories of similar accounts, where no intervention happened. The injured person simply decided to accept their situation or there situation changed to a better one. The eminent American neurosurgeon Jack Kruse puts it this way: ‘you cannot heal in the environment where you got sick’. Any kind of stress – psychological especially – turns off your repair and reproductive functions. This is akin to turning off the supply of adaptive energy. Suddenly any illness or injury can just waltz in and take over, even simple ones that your immune system can easily cope with. The immune system can very likely deal with pretty much everything – except the most lethal maladies and blunt force traumas – if only giventhe right circumstances. Once we are outside this ‘right’ this state we cannot heal, we cannot repair, we cannot improve. Injuries and ailments seem mysterious and we chase from one therapist or doctor to another or one drug store or pharmacy to the next, in search of a cure.

The most insidious aspect of this problem is that many people are in denial of the true root cause of the problem. Accepting a deep underlying unhappiness, or unwillingness to accept that your life is not what you want, can be very difficult to do for the ego. Denial can be much more comfortable. Much easier to find someone who can ‘fix us’ even if the key to unlocking the solution is likely right in your own hand. You just have to accept the situation at hand and work with it rather than struggle against it. Ok, so you can only run 7:30 minutes per kilometre without pain. Then that is what you do. ‘But, but…the runner in you will stammer…I used to run 4:30 min/km NO PROBLEM.’ These phrases belong nowhere in an athlete’s vocabulary. You should expunge them forcefully: ‘should have’, ‘could have’, ‘would have’, ‘must’ and ‘I could be IF’. No one cares, least of all reality. All that matters is the current situation. Your solutions lie in phrases like ‘I can’, ‘I will’ and ‘I am’. ‘I can walk up the stairs’, ‘I can squeeze a soft ball with my broken hand’, ‘I can run 200 metres in this particular pair of footwear down the road’. You accept your current limitations and you work from them instead of what you would like to be like or what you used to be able to do or what some guru, book, running magazine or ‘Science’ tells you is ‘the Way’.

The logic applies beyond running as well and in my experience most running injuries have little to do with overtraining from running itself. The correlation is weak. I myself got injured not when running the most. In fact I was injury free when I ran the most. But this was also the time when I was happiest, most fulfilled, with the clearest direction in life and the best environment for rest and recovery. In other words, I was injury free because my life was one of contentment and clarity. I had no resistance to the present moment and thus there was no pretext for my body to attack itself nor was there a constant shut-down of the enormous powers of repair and regeneration that we are all born with. I could afford plenty of mistakes if I wanted to make them – biomechanical, training, nutrition (although in fact, I did not make many then) – because my body had enough adaptive capacity to simply shrug it off. This is what philosopher Nassim Taleb calls ‘anti-fragile’ – a state where a biological organism gains from disorder. It is our natural state (although some like Jack Kruse prefer the term ‘metastability’ as superior, but that is a topic for another day) whereas the strangely common state we see today where people get ill after one exposure to cold weather or a few weeks of poor training is unnatural. It is the state of fragility and makes absolutely no sense when we consider ourselves as the product of relentless evolutionary processes that have honed our organism to survive where 99.9% of all other species have died out.

The environment comes first, always

There is a reason that optimising the environment around you is the most important thing you can do. More important than diet and much more important than exercise. If your body and mind sense that you live in a healthy space – physically and mentally – then your body will thrive. If it senses the opposite, you will struggle to survive. Mother Nature abides no passengers. Athletes require a state of thriving because we are asking our bodies to exceed their current boundaries and grow and adapt rapidly – often so swiftly that we pay today’s gains off future reserves. An athlete will not have it another way, of course.

Once you are trapped in the state of resistance you will seek more and more cures – often expensive ones – and you will seek to do more and more, being busier and busier. More mobility work, more strength work, more support. Or go see a new specialist with ‘better drills’ or ‘latest science’. You will see 3 different physiotherapists hoping one will find the answer. Once that fails you will see an osteopath, perhaps a chiropractor, perhaps a sports surgeon or an acupuncturist or a homeopath.

Two ways in the woods…

While each may well provide relevant information to make you more aware of what is stopping your from healing, the opposite often happens – you get more and more information and you fill your life with more and more interventions, pilling pebbles of stress on an ever bigger pile. The very cures you are offered become the poison that push you further away from the state of health you desire. This is why the principle of ‘subtraction‘ is so powerful – even if anathema to many Western capitalist minds – getting more for less. Running faster by running slower. Getting healthier by removing things from your life rather than buying fixes. Getting happier by saying no to more so you can focus on the few important things. And so on. Imagine a life without the pursuit of more. Current society, of course, does not want us to pursue the path of subtraction because this does not fuel the economy as it exists. An injured runner is a fabulous consumer. They will part with money to buy things they do not really want – on the hope that it will return them to the healthy state where they can do what they do want to do. Injured runners keep the economy going just like sick people do and just like today’s quintessential consumer has been carefully raised to do. We are driven to have wants that harm us instead of simply buying what we actually need to be healthy, strong and happy. All of it is, of course, a vicious cycle bringing you further from true health and further from true insights about yourself. Not every coach or therapist is worthless in this worldview – only those who do not expand your mind and bring your focus back to accepting the current situation as it really is, showing you the priorities and providing you the impetus to focus your presence there.

Does this change your perspective on your own injuries? If so I’d love to hear your stories. The current paradigm is broken. We must tell the stories to undo it and rebuilt a better one.


Are you purposeful when you train?

I first encountered the term ‘purposeful practice’ whilst reading ‘Bounce‘ by former Olympic table-tennis player Matthew Syed. This term originated from the now more generally adopted idea of ‘deliberate practice’ coined by psychologist Anders Ericsson. It has three components each of which are often missing in runners individual workouts and each of which can easily be brought back in.

Under the hood of deliberation

Deliberate has many meanings and as we go through them I believe you will recognise that our physical culture today suffers from a general lack of such ‘deliberation’ and ‘purposefulness’:

  • Deliberate: careful and unhurried, done consciously and intentionally, fully considered.
  • Purposeful: intentional, serving a useful purpose

The precise term ‘deliberate practice’ has been given an even more formal definition:

Duvivier et al. reconstructed the concept of deliberate practice into practical principles to describe the process as it relates to clinical skill acquisition. They defined deliberate practice as: repetitive performance of intended cognitive or psychomotor skills. source: Wikipedia

The components of deliberate practice

When we use the word ‘practice’ instead of purely ‘training’ or ‘workout’ as I do in my professional training plans and when working with clients it denotes a view of running as a skill. This is consistent with recent breakthroughs in the understanding of training such as the work of Frans Bosch (Strength Training and Coordination – an integrative approach) which show that traditional athletic qualities like endurance, strength and power cannot be separated from the motor skills that generate them. In layman’s terms: how your coordinate the movement of the parts of your body individually and in relation to each other has a direct bearing on the endurance you can express, the power you can generate and the strength you can showcase. These qualities do not exist as independent factors that can be trained in isolation.

The four components suggested by Ericsson* for deliberate practice are shown below. As runners we can substitute the word task for ‘workout’ or ‘practice session’.

  • You must be motivated to attend to the task and exert effort to improve your performance.
  • The design of the task should take into account your pre-existing knowledge so that the task can be correctly understood after a brief period of instruction.
  • You should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of your performance.
  • You should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.

Let me briefly examine them in turn.

* Ericsson’s work has become known as the 10,000 hour rule leading some to believe ‘simple’ repetition is enough. There are many caveats to the 10,000 hour rule (such as the fact it does not hold for everyone) among them that these hours have to be ‘deliberate practice’ and not merely ‘practice’ or the natural antonym ‘mindless practice’.

You must be motivated

Running has changed from being purely a vocation for a fringe group of fanatics to an obsession for the few, a passion for some and means to an end for the masses whether that means to an end is bragging rights, weight-loss or a feeling of greater well-being. Quite often even for fanatical competitive runners the act of running itself is simply a means to other ends rather than a process to be enjoyed for its own sake – i.e. the enjoyment of the sport rests purely on achievement of certain objective targets such as placement in races and

These motivations often create a culture of disassociate training where the runner attempts to divorce himself or herself from the act of training and the experiences generated from it. The classical example would have been day-dreaming during a workout to try and forget about the discomfort whereas the contemporary strategy tends to be ear-phones (the future may be Pokemon Go).

Before I tell you why you should favour associative training, I want to note that for the majority of people dissociate training harbours powerful benefits in the high-stress existence manufactured by the current neo-capitalist and consumerist culture. Disassociate training can help restore a parasympathetic ‘rest and digest’ state and serve as a period of mental relaxation. Associative and thus deliberate practice cannot offer this haven. This may be one of the main reasons full-time athletes hold a deciding edge over even the most mercurial amateurs: the mental resources required to work most jobs take away from the time the same mental and neurological resources we need to invest in deliberate practice.

In the daily training we must remember that our brains priority (or call it central governor if you wish) remains survival and energy conservation both of which are linked. It will therefore prefer to make the least necessary effort. We often call this ‘lazy’ – a quality representing  a virtue in the wild. So in our practice and training design we must first assure that we are motivated both by the goals (truly and honestly)* and by the process itself. Arthur Lydiard said that training ‘starts with enjoyment’ and we can see why here: without enjoyment, trust and belief in a training process it will be impossible to enjoy the daily run. It will also be difficult if every workout is executed against time pressure from work or family.

* I feel the need to emphasize this as my observation is that many people have goals that are not their own. They merely represent goals they believe they have to hold in order to maintain their self-esteem and standing within a peer group or because society is sending the signal that this is ‘something to do’ rather than something the person truly connects with and deeply and passionately wants to do.


As a coach my observation is that the majority of people need to understand ‘why’ they are doing ‘what’ they have been told to do and that we often underestimate the instruction needed to master the ‘how’ of each session. Which brings us to the second element of deliberate practice:

The design of the task should take into account your pre-existing knowledge

Doing something poorly or incorrectly is generally worse than not doing anything at all. Coaches and athletes alike need to ensure they do not merely copy the approach of others or rush out to do something taken out of context.

From a coaches perspective this merely means you need to be very aware of the knowledge of your athletes and provide clearer instruction or simpler workouts to less experienced athletes (and children). You do not ask someone to train Olympic ring moves who cannot master basic scapular control and you do not ask someone to perform intervals who barely understands the essentials of pacing at slower paces and so on.

This seemingly trivial observation becomes important because of the third point:

You should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of your performance.

When we simply ‘go run’ we often have no way of knowing whether we are improving or not. From a technical perspective injuries, pains and niggles are signals that the way we move or the volume of training we have chosen are unacceptable to the body. Such feedback is generally immediate unless you wear lots of support and use excessive cushioning in your footwear in which case the feedback often comes delayed (and thus after you have a chance to alter your approach).

Running training can be insidious because over-training often leads temporary benefits as the sympathetic ‘fight or flight’ system becomes geared up. This creates an illusion of improvement where there is actually regression and health risks involved. In my methodology we try to move around this risk by establishing very realistic starting points from athletes based on a number of tests, previous race performance, heart rate monitored training and a heavy focus on subjective feedback.

Since early in the last century the watch has been the most common feedback tool for runners and with good reason as all our performances are eventually measured against pace. This represents an objective feedback tool. Today we prefer these types of measures. While the watch is essential for high performance it can become a problem if we divorce it from subjective feedback tools – how you feel and what signals your body sends you. The absence of subjective feedback arises as a result of disassociate training methods such as running while listening to  a song or watching the tv while pounding the treadmill. In general our culture pulls our focus away from our bodies and what it tells us and into our mind where we don’t listen or are too distracted.

I try to work around this by providing both foci: objective measures such as heart rate, pace, duration and distance are used to ensure the ‘lazy brain’ does not unduly limit performance and subjective measures are put in place to ensure the athlete has to think about what happens before, during and after the run. We can look at how you feel through a Rate of Perceived Effort Chart or by setting an ‘effort’ for each workout by using systems like Arthur Lydiard’s (1/4 effort, 1/2 effort, 3/4 effort, 7/8 effort and full effort).

The risk with objective measures is that they can limit performance: when you set a number of repetitions (’10’) you may begin to get tired at 8 because your brain expects that 10 is the maximum effort. If you set a pace target that you believe is challenging then running faster in the race and seeing this may stress you out (‘oh no, too fast’). Your experience from training in interpreting subjective measures will be your anti-dote so you can have the best of both worlds (‘ok, 10 reps was called for but I still do not feel the level of tiredness I planned for this type of workout’ or ‘oh, I am 10 seconds ahead of target pace but my body feels very relaxed, so I must be in great shape today’).

This approach happens at all levels of training – the daily practice sessions is the most important but also to look at the development of objective and subjective measures every week and every month. If you do not monitor whether your pace and volume are moving in the right direction and whether your body seems to be getting healthier rather than more broken, then you are not training deliberately and this is a major impediment. Today we have a culture of following training plans blindly and in-spite of clear subjective or objective signals to the contrary. I cannot identify exactly where this notion comes from but suggest it is a mixture of a culture brought up to comply and follow rulesets and a general lack of self-esteem and self-belief among athletes.

You should repeatedly complete the same task

We live in a distraction-rich culture and with new sexy workouts emerging every week on websites and running magazines, we have more athletes than ever ‘program hopping’ or ‘switching horses in the middle of the river’ (a Danish saying) . Many approaches – whether training or rehab – are abandoned long before enough repetition has occurred to showcase any benefit. This is a result of an increasing level of impatience and expectation of instant gratification.

The basic lesson here: once you have chosen a certain way to train or a certain type of practice session, you must repeat it long enough to generate meaningful progress. You cannot simply hop from one type of workout to the next randomly and expect improvement. Running is in this regard an ideal sport because you can repeat each stride 180 or so per minute meaning you can do 10,800 repetitions of a movement in a mere hour!

This recommendation comes with a big disclaimer, however, due to the recent findings in the study of motor learning. In traditional training the ‘overload’ we apply to generate positive training adaptations focuses on increasing forces (a physics-led quantitative approach and has ignored the equally, or maybe more, important sensorimotor overload (a qualitative motor learning approach). Expressed less academically: stress is not simply about doing more or faster (more total forces) but a matter of ‘how different’ the task we execute is to our nervous system. This is dictated by three constraints: the environment in which we run, the movement task being trained (a certain running speed or type) and the runner performing the movement. To explore this idea we would need a separate article but to summarise the implication here: repetition of task does not mean repetition of one exact task as this is impossible to achieve anyway in the real world (an open dynamic system).

Training research suggests that we need (again to steal Arthur Lydiard’s words) ‘consistent variety’. So we need to run but we need a certain amount of variety the three constraints we can modify:

  1. Task constraint: paces, duration, rest periods, coaching cues, distance, repeats
  2. Environmental constraints: terrain, slope, weather conditions, time of day, time of year, training partners, obstacles, shoes, tools
  3. Organismic constraints: fuel intake, hydration intake, level of rest and recovery, motivation etc.

Completely monotonous training is therefore not ‘deliberate practice’ even if you are highly focused. You need to introduce variability – even if small – on a regular basis to reap maximum adaptations. This also passes the test of whether we can make sense of this logic from an evolutionary perspective: the natural world would challenge our bodies in different ways with a lack of uniform surfaces as a primary example and it makes sense we evolved to respond better to variability than monotony.


To improve your chances of success as a runner you need to engage in more deliberate practice. This requires setting accurate goals which truly motivate you and executing your sessions and your training schedule in a way that provides you regular and immediate feedback on whether you are improving or disimproving. You need to practice consistently and regularly and not abandon training practices long before you have a chance to learn them properly. At the same time you must ensure you keep enough variability in your training to avoid monotony.

The only exception to the recommendation of deliberate practice are highly stressed individuals who should focus on mentally relaxing training where they can let their minds drift.

Further reading

Bounce – The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice

Peak – Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

Strength Training and Coordination – An Integrative Approach

Are even surfaces stressful?

The debate surrounding running surfaces tends to focus on hard surfaces versus soft surfaces. This betrays an important blind-spot of our current running culture: we have forgotten where we came from.

Zoo-human perspectives and the surface blind-spot

In the 1960ies and 1970ies Desmond Morris, the British zoologist coined the term ‘zoo-human’, to describe our modern day permutation.The key feature of a zoological garden is the removal of the animals on display from their natural habitat and an almost complete cessation of the need of these animals for self-reliance. Many such animals – born in captivity – would find it impossible to find for themselves in their natural habitat. Desmond Morris observed how many of the ailments and illnesses befalling modern humans seemed to mimic the predicaments of zoo animals. His books imagery of  people clogged up in Brazilian favelas and shanty towns or American cubicles made the parallel unmistakable.   His thinking has guided much of the modern movements labelling themselves ‘wild’, ancestral, ‘Paleo’, ‘rewilding’, Primal, cave-man and ‘hunter-gatherer’. Today I am more interested in the errors in thinking drawn from our ‘zoo-human existence’ than the physical, sociological and psychological effects.

Since our actions are always determined by our desires and our desires are guided by our beliefs about the world, a zoo-human perspective can lead us to the wrong conclusions – even with correct facts – and therefore to make faulty training choices as runners.

The traditional running surface debate has a tendency to boil down to a simplistic focus on the unnatural hardness of certain man-made surfaces such as concrete over which most road races and training happens to occur. In order to counter this artificial hardness, we must adopt softer shoes and ensure we do a lot of running on grass – especially if we are heavier set. I have discussed this point on TodayFM Radio previously.

In the middle of the discussion of ‘hardness’ vs. ‘softness’ – or technically the level of ‘compliance’ – of a surface, another property eludes mention: variability and it is here that our skewed modern perspective makes itself known.

The solution: an evolutionary perspective

The discipline of Evolutionary Medicine* represents the hat I wear when I deal with injured runners or otherwise am involved in a coaching process where health matters are discussed or addressed. Evolutionary medicine uses insights into our original environment to explain disease etiology (‘why we get sick’) in modern environments. In ‘Evolutionary Coaching’ or ‘Evolutionary Training’ we need to wear this hat and asking the question:

‘how can we use an evolutionary perspective on the human body to guide us towards the right answers to address training issues?’

This will instantly remove you from the trap of zoo-human thinking. Now let us apply it to he question of running surfaces: we know that our ancestors must have moved across highly varied surfaces including both different levels of compliance and different levels of variation in surface traction, evenness, and other attributes. In terms of hardness this brings us to my original recommendation from the radio interview to always seek out a mixture of surfaces for running but not be afraid of less compliant ones – they are not the root cause of your problems.

* I want to alert the reader that Evolutionary Medicine, also called ‘Darwinian Medicine’ currently resides in its infancy partly because it is novel and partly because our understanding of evolution is far from complete and under constant revision. Today, the Paleolithic is used as an ideal comparison point to understand humans when very strong cases have been presented that we need to look much further back – to the Pliocene to truly understand what environment humans evolved to be healthy in. If you do want to inform yourself begin by reading ‘Why we get sick’ and ‘Mismatched’. If you are clinician you may then want to explore the weightier text-books available on the topic.

When safe is dangerous

The most unnatural surface we can imagine may be the synthetic running track. While it is more compliant than most road surfaces, it tends to be completely uniform. A coach or therapist with a zoo-human perspective will view this as an absolute positive and may be fretting about the day their fine thoroughbred stallion of a track runner has to enter his or her first cross-country race.

The coach or therapist with an evolutionary mindset recognises the synthetic track as a greater stressor – because he realises that there is a fundamental MISMATCH between the training and racing surface and the surfaces our human biology evolved to crave and expect. The greater the distance between what our biology expects and what it receives the more mismatches we will have – injury and illness are the end product of mismatches.

Uniformity – or lack of variation – harms biological creatures in almost all domains of life including training and an even running track presents one such stressor. Our foot and ankle evolved to expect a high degree of variability and expects almost every landing to be reasonably different from the previous and the next. When you take this variation away not only do you deprive the body of sensory input and movement experiences that it requires to continue to function optimally but you slow down your rate of learning because the neurological stimulus will be smaller – in other words: you challenge your brain more and thus gain greater motor skill adaptations by introducing more variation in the situations the body has to cope with. The more of this natural and expected variation you remove the more fragile – thus injury-prone – the organism becomes over time. This also affects the artificial running surfaces we create through running shoes – the more variability they remove from your foot-strike the more detrimental to your health and performance in the long-term.**

Variability only becomes detrimental when it rises to such a degree that the movement being practised ends up being entirely different – i.e. if I introduce a 10 metre stretch of bog in the middle of a track this would not be useful variation as a completely different movement than running would result.

** This does not include situations where removing a bit of variability to allow tissue healing to occur is mandated such as splinting a broken arm. But even this comes at a cost – the longer you keep something in a cast the weaker it will become and the longer the journey to return it to full strength. Our blind-spot to the dangers of ‘even surfaces’ has a definitive detrimental effect on the strength and vitality of our running culture.


We tend not to view ‘even surfaces’ as a stressor because we adopt a modern rather than an evolutionary perspective on training decisions. As we evolved on varied surfaces, our biology and performance suffers when we are deprived of this variety for extended periods of time. Too much running on even surfaces and in overly controlling shoes must therefore be avoided especially for children. Instead we need to embrace a wide variety of surface types and trust that our motor control systems evolved to quickly learn and adapt how to deal with these surfaces.

If we hold faulty modern beliefs about the benefits and risks of running surfaces it will guide our training choices in the wrong direction.


Soft body, soft surfaces

This Blog’s name ‘Running Culture’ had two sources of inspiration:

  1. the book ‘Kenyan Running: movement culture and global change’ by John Bale and Joe Sang
  2. movement teacher Ido Portal’s term for his group ‘Movement culture’

It became obvious to me that the word ‘culture’ in both the title of the book and the movement group deserved central attention because our beliefs are based on our culture and our beliefs shape our actions and thus our success in running as in other sports and different aspects of life. Fix the culture and you fix all the downstream issues.

One cultural belief taken to task by Ido Portal within the broader context of ‘movement’* are the limitations we built around ourselves and our physical development. In an interview with Daniel Vitalis, Ido Portal references a teacher who told him ‘soft body, soft surface’. I want to explore this briefly below and bring it within the context of running culture.

* Ido Portal uses the word ‘movement’ to describe his practice rather than ‘training’ or even ‘physical education’ (my own preferred term) because the focus is on ‘moving’ the body, something that can be done at any time, rather than bringing a Westernised mindset of ‘boxing set artificial movement patterns into a rigid time’. We will talk more about this dichotomy when discussing Ido Portal’s ‘Classical vs. Romantic’ training methods – both of which have a place that must be understood not as exclusive of each other but living in harmony. The issue in the West, as always, is the fitness industry gravitating towards only one side of the continuum – the one currently appearing most appetising to the market thus providing ‘people what they want, rather than giving them what they need.’

Hard surface or hard body?

Today it is the norm to train on soft surfaces such as padded gym floors or yoga mats, we spend most of our time sitting on soft chairs and car seats and our feet are enveloped into increasingly soft rubber cushions. This presents a radically different challenge to the human body than our ancestral environment and even the world of grand-fathers or great grand-fathers were luxuries were more scarce, car journeys less common, sitting around all day a rarity and sports shoes made from hard canvass soles.

Many years ago a coach called Tony Riddle confronted me with the notion that training on a harder surface forces your body to become softer – if something is uncomfortable, it forces us to find a work-around to make it more pleasurable. Ido Portal’s teacher, a practitioner of shadow yoga, considered closer to the original traditions of yoga by many, did all his classes without any yoga mats. He felt such mats limited the physical development of his students. ‘If you feel pain, perhaps you are putting weight on something that should not have weight on it.’. Certain structures of the body are better equipped to handle body-weight but the clues to develop this awareness are often robbed from us by our artificially softened environment. In this case our soft environment makes us soft in a different sense: less strong, less adaptable, less able to cope.

In our context as runners we see this in the move towards extreme cushioning of the heel. Practice jumping with a hard sole or barefoot on rigid surfaces and you very quickly adapt away from a heavy heel-landing putting to bed theories about whether it is appropriate to land heavily on the heel during high impact activity. The cushioned sole robs us of the necessary perception to understand where on the surface of the foot it is appropriate to place certain loads. Here our culture of ‘cushioning’ perverts our beliefs into believing certain physical movements are appropriate when in reality they are not. From this false belief, erroneous actions such as heavy heel-striking running patterns are born.

Another practical example is very instructional: if you move over rugged, wet and uneven terrain you will not choose to sit down for a rest – you will squat to avoid getting cut, wet, cold or sore.   Without artificial support we pick the correct movement for the scenario, we are in. The price of comfort (such as a fold-out chair) is movement degeneration and destruction of your full athletic potential. Is your comfort worth this price? Only you can answer this question.

Within our little box

The yoga mat serves as a great example not just of how we have tried to eliminate the natural variation and hardness of surfaces, we need to develop proper sense of body-weight shifting and loading, but of how modern training and fitness practices place artificial limitations on our training essentially unsuitable to the real demands of life.

Any ‘mat-based’ exercise artificially constrains itself within a generally purple rectangle. Movements that should be happening do not happen or are not explored. Our motion control footwear limits us in the same way by robbing our foot of experiencing its full range of motion. A foot without a natural ability to fall into pronation (inward roll) and bring itself back out into a supinated position (an action Gary Ward appropriately calls ‘resupination’) cannot function to its full potential. Yet many shoes will steal away this movement potential bit by bit until it is gone altogether. At this stage the runner will be more dependent than he was before on the control of the shoe. This is essentially similar to the predicament of the drug user – the more he or she takes, the more she needs to maintain the addiction and feel comfortable.

“The more support you wear, the more you will need in the future. Supportive footwear thus works by the same mechanism as drug use – the more you take, the more you need for comfort. – author”

Modern exercise routines – including our own sub-disciplines of track and road running – are very linear sports with low variability in surface variation and density. Cross-country was long the yearly anti-dote for serious runners (and remains so for many, thankfully) with the (re)-emergence of trail running, our natural locomotive transportation mode, also benefiting our current running culture. However, it must be recognised that many runners ‘step out of the mat’ and take to the trails mentally only, not physically, because when they go onto the trail they chose to wear a heavily cushioned runner*, running gaiters, water-proof socks and compression gear.

* The emergence of maximalist and super-interventionalist monstrosities such as Hoka One-One are particularly instructive of our desire to reconnect with nature ‘from behind a looking glass’. This culture also permeates the hiking community where hills are to be enjoyed from behind layers of water-proof GoreTex and gaiters. This is an expression of a modern mind longing to reconnect with the wild and unpredictable yet still too fearful and domesticated to fully shed the comfortable trappings of modernity. 

This weakens our running culture in ways many may not expect. Since I have mentioned Ido Portal several times in this article let me ‘lift’ another of his well-known quotes: ‘don’t wrap your joints in supports, wrap your joints in exercise’. And what about this one: ‘the more expensive the tools, the cheaper the mover’. This ports directly into our sport: ‘the more expensive the equipment, the less developed the runner’.

To improve our running culture, we must not seek comfort for comfort’s sake and we must step outside the artificial boundaries set by mats, shoes and coaches schooled in excessively linear training methods and explore the wild and unpredictable. Have weak ankles? Stop taping them all the time and begin to explore their full ranges in squatting, walking, jumping and running over increasingly complex terrain. Cannot control your foot pronation (‘over-pronation’)? Rehabilitate foot issues and practice exercises teaching your body how to react and move the foot out of pronation back into a supinated position. Stop seeking the easy artificial solutions and the band-aids and look for permanent cures which leave you stronger – not weaker.


The 4-hour coach


American author Tim Ferris published the bestseller ‘The 4-hour workweek’ in 2007 as a response to the cultural institution of ‘going through the doldrums’ in a regular profession from leaving school to the days you retire. He presented the wealth of the ‘new rich’ as: mobility, time and money

I enjoyed the message of the 4-hour workweek but its message is often misunderstood in such a way that people  begin to ignore a fundamental dynamic of human relationships: value, in the form of money, flows to people who are valuable to others*. Provide value and you get rewarded in return. A person who earns money but provides little or no value to his fellow man is a parasite. Ancient societies easily dealt with such leisure-riders by simply shunning them or depriving them of their share of the days foraging and hunting (as detailed by Saltin in his seminal ‘Stone Age Economics’).

It is possible to provide more value in 4 hours than some people provide in a life-time, of course. Money is linked to value not to ‘hours worked’ and the greatest achievement of the 4-hour work-week is to put a stake through the heart of this nonsensical notion. I could sit down at my kitchen table and, let us say, invent a cure for cancer in 4 hours and few would begrudge me living off the earnings and never lifting a finger for the rest of my life.

* Let us ignore for a moment that there are ways to corrupt this dynamic and hoard wealth off scamming, fooling or misleading others.

In most cases, however, this is not what people attempt to do. They are looking for a life-style business which means ‘a regular income from few work hours, with no nagging boss and the ability to work from anywhere’. I was charmed by this notion myself but as I threw myself at ‘business-building’, I learnt a key lesson: You do not become top of any sport or industry part-time. Anyone who dominates in the world of business or sport lives and breathes their calling every hour of the day. If you want to live part-time and still earn and income you have to prepare to be mediocre and you definitely need to embrace a minimalist lifestyle as your earnings are likely to be low (as they should be – a mediocre performer has low to medium value).

I noticed this lesson because my business of choice was coaching athletes. My value to athletes comes from the depth of my knowledge and my ability to apply it complex individuals to provide them solutions. A ‘4-hour coach’ will never truly achieve the coaching ability necessary to become top-class. Human beings are too complex and the fields of knowledge a coach needs to master to numerous. It takes years of immersive practical experience to achieve any kind of competence as a coach.

Our culture has a challenge here because running and athletics as a sport does not generate the revenue for profitable careers for coaches .You cannot walk away with millions like Mourinho and Jurgen Klopp even if you are the world’s top coach. This means our education relies primarily on amateurs and they serve an important function although they are also a curiosity in the modern world. We are happy to have amateur coaches but not amateur therapists or amateur mechanics. The reason is partly convention and partly that coaching is not valued highly. This has to do with supply and demand. You do not value an episode of your favourite tv-show highly enough to pay for it if you can download it for free off a pirate-site, but you still enjoy the tv-show. Likewise, most of us value coaching but not enough to pay for it as it can be done cheaply. This is not the runners problem, it is up to the professional coaches to demonstrate their value and change this perception. The same goes for our sport in general – to get more money flowing we must create a better product and not lament that ‘soccer is more glamorous’*. To achieve this the standard among professional coaches and their ability to communicate needs to be heightened.

* I’ll explore this topic in a later post

Here we finally encounter the issue of with the ‘4-hour coach’. A perception exists, especially among office executives, that working in physical education, coaching or personal training is glamorous and a natural choice to build a ‘lifestyle business’. Nothing could be further from the truth. In order to be successful without being an expert, you need to pick a very well-known ‘fitness concept’ such as Zumba and simply be good at marketing and selling as well as a reasonably capable instructor. These instructors will not lead to innovations and revolutions in our running culture, however.

Anyone who moves into coaching runners needs to embrace it as a full-time profession. They should follow Dan Pena’s advice and do it only because they are passionate about it – only this way can you put enough time aside to practice and perfect your coaching to create the standard we need in order for the general runner to perceive professional coaches as highly valuable individuals on par with physiotherapists, mechanics, dentists, psychologists, university lecturers and other such professionals. A coach needs to hang up his attachment to being merely ‘a trainer’ and understand he is a ‘human consultant’ and a ‘physical educator’.* His or her knowledge in all the fields related to human functioning needs to be supremely well developed – deep, wide AND linked to hours and hours of practical application. Someone truly passionate about the sport he coaches will not look to ‘clock out’ at 4 hours – he will be happy to spend the majority of his hours ‘breaking the code of performance’ – because his sport is also his vocation. These are the teacher we need. The teachers who opportunistically select our sport because they believe it is a ‘fertile market’ to be milked for ‘another stream of revenue’, we need, as runners, need to show the door. It may sound discriminatory but we need ‘real running coaches for real runners’. Passionate teachers who will perfect their craft and conduct themselves to the highest professional standards. With an army of such individuals, Ireland’s running success can be turned around.

* There is also a circular cultural effect at play here. We value things more highly if we have to pay for them. If we pay for something we are more likely to use it or listen to it. Consultants have known this for a long time: by charging more they command more respect – but the caveat is that they do have to deliver the results as well. If athletes perceive coaches merely as ‘stop-watch holders’ or ‘the guy who picks up the cones’, it becomes more difficult to command the necessary position to teach effectively. 

Authors note (15th May): If you do not find this argument convincing, read a few articles online about the resurgence of German soccer and compare the amount of coaches they have in their system compared to the British system. What we have to increase is the total sum of available top-class coaching knowledge. You could write the equation this way:

Average competence of each coach available x number of available coaches = sum of coaching competence available

It is irrelevant whether the coaches are professional or amateur a coach with a ‘negative competence’ (doing more harm than good) would draw the average down. Being a professional is a fail-safe against such individuals because people who provide negative results go out of business – as they deservedly should. This ‘culling of the herd’ effect is necessary in a coaching profession.


Every man is a teacher

IMG_20160227_131929.jpgJoe Henderson wrote a chapter in his book ‘Run right now’ titled ‘advice to advisers’ stressing that ‘once you have learned the basics of running, you become a potential teacher, coach or adviser’.

This is part of the cultural formation of every social group whether running related or not – ‘old-timers’ show novices the ropes. We cannot have human society as we know it without this feature. Whenever you look at the runners around you, the mirror neurons in your brain ‘learn something’ from that observation. We ‘teach others’ even when we don’t want to do it. Improving running technique across the population will raise the quality of ‘unconscious teaching’ in our culture. In this article I explore the issues with ‘conscious teaching’ such as giving advice to a running friend.

From anthropological studies, we see this ‘every man is a teacher’ element at work in tribal societies where the concept of ‘elders’ remains intact. An elder, rather than being merely perceived as ‘an old person’, is a senior figure commanding respect and authority.

The more you have achieved in running or in coaching runners, the more authority you are likely to command. In this day and age, you can also achieve this authority by shouting higher through various media and by creating a perception of success or illusion of knowledge.

Since a running culture can only be as successful as the accuracy of the knowledge of the members within the culture (and their willingness to act correctly upon this knowledge), we all have a large responsibility. Anyone who gives advice to another runner – whether in an amateur coaching, professional coaching or peer-to-peer capacity – shares this responsibility.

Today, we have more information available to us than ever before but not necessarily more deep knowledge and certainly not more wisdom (ability to apply our information to specific real-life contexts). This leads to much advise being given that is shallow or misplaced. We can make several common mistakes such as assuming 1) methods that work for us will work for others and 2) if I read a research study or online article providing a suggestion I can pass the conclusion on without applying any context or tailoring to the individual.

In truth, our running culture would benefit if we all lived by the mantra ‘when in doubt, give no advice’ and instead let people figure the answer out through trial and error. To ensure we give advice others can apply we must ensure that:

  1. We know the full background and context behind the training advice we want to provide others (i.e. ‘the full story’)
  2. We only pass on information we have ourselves tried and we are ourselves invested in (this is known as ‘skin in the game’ and exemplified by the Roman example of having an architect sleep under the bridge he built – if it collapses, he dies too)
  3. We cross-check our advice against universal physical laws and what we know about how humans are evolved before passing it on (some coaches today refer to this as the ‘BS filter’

Point 2 refers to arm-chair coaches and arm-chairs commentators who are a major problem to the running culture in the West. This refers to anyone who recommends or criticises certain training practices based purely on theory – meaning they never tried or tested it themselves. These ‘pseudo-teachers’ also tend to be more concerned with ‘being right’ and gaining status within the running community rather than getting results.

Coaches who need to get results cannot afford to be wrong for very long so are very open to changing their minds or to try something first and criticise it later. Arm-chairs coaches and advisers tend to ignore context and this makes their advice particularly dangerous. If you receive such advice go back to the source and see what the advice was founded on. A good example is someone sharing a Kenyan training plan and recommending others follow it without explaining and analysing the background of the Kenyan runner and the environment he or she completed the training in.

Point 3 is necessary because even authoritative sources of information about training such as research papers may often be based on a narrow context at beast or, at worst, entirely false. If you pause for a moment and consider what you know about the laws of nature and how human beings would have lived and thrived before we became civilised, you can often deduce whether If not refer to the basic rule: give no advice. This latter part is a philosophy known as ‘Via Negativa‘ – from ancient Greek medicine – which deters us from intervening (advice is an intervention) – when we are unsure about the effects.

Whether you are a coach or simply an experienced runner, you can help make our running culture more knowledgeable, more wise and ultimately more successful by teaching through the principles pointed out here. We can take this too lightly because running is a casual hobby for many people.

In my early days of coaching, I possessed much greater certainty in my advice and teachings than I do know. The more I learn and the more I understand, the more I can see how little we all really know. When you understand that the totality of your knowledge, even when you are an expert, will always remain a very small part of what can be known, you begin to proceed with much greater caution and with greater respect for trial and error and less respect for deducing broad sweeping guidelines based on theory.