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:
- Task constraint: paces, duration, rest periods, coaching cues, distance, repeats
- Environmental constraints: terrain, slope, weather conditions, time of day, time of year, training partners, obstacles, shoes, tools
- 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.
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.
This Blog’s name ‘Running Culture’ had two sources of inspiration:
- the book ‘Kenyan Running: movement culture and global change’ by John Bale and Joe Sang
- 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.
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.
Joe 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:
- We know the full background and context behind the training advice we want to provide others (i.e. ‘the full story’)
- 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)
- 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.
Definition: not adequate, helpless
Our modern culture has increasingly disenfranchised us from many of our own inborn abilities. This has an enormous knock-on effect on athleticism and physical competence in a population.
We live in a victim culture, in some places even a ‘nanny-state’, where the first response is generally to intervene rather than letting things ‘play out’ and allowing us, as individuals, to figure out solutions on our own.
This tendency even permeates our intellectual world. Any question or answer is only a click or Google search away. Most of us can no longer mend basic wounds. We go to the doctor to have issues dealt with that mothers, grandmothers and ‘wise uncles’ could easily take care of in the past.
Eager sellers of ‘artificial support’, armed with research studies, will put your limbs in a cast rather than carefully suggesting that ‘perhaps we can work this weakness for a bit and see if you can do it on your own’.
Human-kind arose to its dominant place on this planet because we had the necessary self-sufficiency – both within social groups and when on our own – to adapt and respond to a vast variety of physical and mental challenges every day. We could not always count on others to bail us out. Modern culture, for reasons of efficiency, drove us into specialised niches. As far as our sporting culture is concerned this has likely gone too far: we ‘outsource’ every small pain or decision to someone ‘with expertise’ become incapable and incompetent to ‘run our own bodies’ in the process.
I have a personal vision of a culture of competent and empowered individuals and athletes – much in the vein of what Australian coach Percy Cerutty dreamed of (and realised – in the microcosm of his Portsea Camp) – who do not need a consultant to tell them how to go to get out of bed in the morning.
My concerns are not with experts – therapists, coaches, consultants – I hope to count myself among them – but with the rule we ascribe to them in our society. We need these professionals to take on the role of teachers – so that when you have worked with a consultant or a therapist you are more capable and more independent than you were before you worked with them. This is the litmus test.
The difficulty comes from the pressure on consultants and therapists to ‘intervene’ even when it would be better to do less (it is hard to justify charging for services you do not deliver) and from patients who want ‘quick results’ or ‘instant fixes’. This increases the demand for short-term interventions (massage, ankle braces) at the expense of long-term education (physical conditioning, technical coaching). We need to reverse that relationship and unfortunately this can only be done coach by coach and athlete by athlete.
To begin: if you are therapist, health professional or coach who does not deal with emergency care, you should see your primary role as a long-term educator. Your aim is to make your student or patient fully self-sufficient. This means assisting them in getting rid of both physical and mental crutches. It also means that your success criteria is a student or patient who may one day no longer need you. This should not cause financial concern – dedicated students will want to learn ‘what’s next’ and even if they stop coming to you for advise, others will take note of their results and come to you.
Breeding such self-sufficiency back into our population will be a keystone piece in repairing our Running Culture.*
* And general culture. I have always seen my own life as evolving away from running specifically, and into life generally, as I get into ‘old age’. We all have a vested interest in all the people around us being capable and self-sufficient. Every person who is not increases the burden on the rest. That is not a call to ‘cull the weak’ – rather to empower them, where possible.