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.



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

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.


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.

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.