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.



Soft body, soft surfaces

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

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

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

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

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

Hard surface or hard body?

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

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

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

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

Within our little box

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The incapable athlete

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. 




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.