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.

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 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.

Summary

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.

 

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.

The average of the 5 around you

5kenyansSuccessful businessman and multi-millionaire Dan Pena tells his students that ‘show me your friends and I will show you, your future’ pointing out that he believes every person is the average of the 5 people they spend the most time with.

We may be seeing a form of this effect in Kenya where you can bump into sub-2:10 marathoners with alarming regularity if you hang out in the clusters where most of the country’s top athletes come from. Most aspiring runners gravitate towards this area much like many ambitious runners gravitated towards Lydiard or Cerutty in the 1950s and 1960s – lured in, first by the rumours of a mysterious coach, and then by the obvious success of previous students.

To succeed it is likely, we need to judge our influences very carefully. Negative runners with limited self-belief and, perhaps, limited ability, may not make the best training partners if we truly want to ‘move on’ within the sport.

I have seen this in action in business: unless all partners are pulling evenly on the sleigh it doesn’t move in the right direction. I now hold myself to a very high standard in my profession: I expect a huge work-rate every day – no 4-hour work-week dreams here (watch out for my piece on the ‘4-hour coach’) – and I expect the same from my partners. Less than that and we go our separate ways because it only takes one weak cog to compromise the integrity of the wheel.

This rule could apply to your training group – so watch it. If you are looking for high performance, ensure everyone is on-board an have the mental attitude and commitment to the process. One bad egg can influence everyone in your training group downwards.

Our fear of failure

You have heard all the excuses: ‘Thursday’s session is still in my legs’, ‘its not really my distance’, ‘I prefer the trails’, ‘I was treating it as a training run’, ‘  and, of course, ‘my granny died’.

Legendary coach Percy Cerutty admonished sound advice when he implored runners to stick the excuses or stay away from the races. A manly and womanly ideal now somewhat forgotten. I believe this presents a significant problem to our culture beyond the general annoyance it presents to those around the ‘excusenik’.

In a different domain, multi-millionaire Dan Pena hits a sore spot with his mentees on a regular basis when he asks them to accept that they are not taking sufficient risks to succeed in business due to a basic lack of self-esteem.

‘Fear of failure is caused by lack of self-esteem and confidence. Dealing with fear is key to super success’ -Dan Pena

He is right. We live in a culture that has come to celebrate mediocrity because we all grow up expecting a pat on the back for the most basic achievement. ‘Resting in yourself’ and ‘seeking no clamour’ are things of the past as we post our 3 km training run through several social media sites and hungrily wait for the applause to rain down on us. Now, resist the urge to comment and call me a person who is ‘down on people of moderate ability’ and reflect for a moment. Do we really believe it represents a healthy culture when we cannot do a simple healthy thing or a small challenge without the need to have our egos stroked? Does this not rather represent a collective lack of self-esteem and general lack of sufficient self-love when we have to seek this kind of digital adoration? I do believe this culture harms us all – not only does it set the bar for ‘achievement’ lower and lower. When everyone is a hero, no one is a hero. It means that seeing a 5 km time of 18:30 as a fabulous time for a male athlete becomes the norm rather than 17:30 (random example – insert any distance and time you wish). As our bar get’s lower and lower, running cultures like the Kenyan get’s higher and higher. Imagine the Eldoret conversation: ‘What do you mean you only ran a 2:15 marathon? Are you ill?’

To improve our running culture, we must kick our own backsides and the backsides of those around us. If you are not an alpha-male (or woman) this does not have to be through tough love – but through proper motivation rather than ‘ra ra’ applauding as someone manages to tie their shoe-laces properly. We owe it to ourselves to set proper standards and to be brutally honest with ourselves about why we make excuses for our own performances. You can be entirely certain that no one cares about your excuses except yourself – and that people will judge you lesser because of them. Vow to never make another excuse – put up or shut up – and set a strong precedent from which a culture of high performers can grow. Begin to do things for their own sake and for personal reasons – stop doing it merely to try and impress others. I do not advice killing all praise or becoming a Zen Monk – indifferent to the opinion of others – but you have to ask yourself ‘am I merely doing this because of how I think it makes others view me?’

Running a poor race does no more make you a bad person than running a fantastic marathon makes you a superb individual. It merely tells us something of how an individual with certain talents performed on the day. A person of medium talent performing splendidly tells a tale of someone with great dedication getting just rewards. If he does not boast about it, we respect him or her even more, although, it should be said, exceptions exist and many of us admire the Muhammad Alis and Conor McGregors of this world. The reason, we admire these people is the same reason I wrote this post: these champions possess courage that most lack especially when we have not yet admitted to ourselves that our self-esteem is not what it should be . Ali, McGregor et al. put themselves out there and like all high performers they don’t waste time thinking about what other people may think of them. And that is the crucial point if we want to move our collective running culture forward: STOP caring what others think – do it for your reasons and be yourself. Put your opinions and your actions out there and if people don’t like it – well tough for them. You’re too busy getting ahead in the world and doing the doing.

Authors note (02/05/2016): I hold coaches, and myself, largely responsible for developing the confidence necessary to abandon our collective fear of failure and put an end to excuses and other symptoms of low self-esteem. Coaches are the teachers. But we absolve athletes of all responsibility – they must be willing to listen and take some honest criticism. The generation grown up believing that praise is the only valid form of feedback will never reach super-success. They must listen or we must abandon them until they wake up and smell the roses.