Monday, 14 September 2015

Science of running: a hierarchy

Listening to Steve Magness' podcast on the topic of Systems vs Process methods to coaching got me thinking about my own take on the subject.

By and large I agree with Steve's message, which boils down to acknowledging coaches can't expect long-term development from their athletes if they follow a pre-ordained workout recipe. This makes perfect sense, as so many factors go into choosing a proper working, to declare your original plan unassailable is tantamount to fortune telling.

But I was irked (as always) when Nassim Taleb's cursed Swan quoted. It is true that "One cannot understand a macroscopic system by appealing to its components in isolation" when making final decisions. But it is also true that isolating certain components can be helpful. That's why we have the Large Hadron Collider. That's why our minds do not benefit from unnecessary multi-tasking. That's why workouts often focus on one type of running (easy, tempo, distance, speed).

Isolation is, in essence, good. Then as athletes grow in complexity, so do the workouts. Each workout component is equivalent to a keyed note. The totality of multiple workouts with many such keys is music.

To illustrate this complexity, I made a diagram with the various internal levels within each of us. To avoid over-generalizing I focus on running.


Each level within the athlete has a different degree of exactness. Pure physics, for the purposes of running, is exact laws of nature. Force = mass x acceleration. Laws of gravity. Chemical reactions. This type of knowledge absolutely benefits from isolation.

Above this level lies Running-specific Physics (ground contact forces, bodyweight, leg lengths, stride length, oxygen availability), Biology (age, sex, rest/sleep patterns), and Psychology (experience, confidence). Although each of these is inter-connected (is VO2max in essence physical or biological, or does it matter?), they too benefit from isolation. Running physics tells us that ground contact times are a function of running turnover, and biology tells us that men run faster than women by about 10-20%. Phycology tells us that someone's grandmother having just dies may affect their performance regardless of the other two factors. Such parameters are not always known exactly, but can still be treated separately.

The final levels, which are the ones that Steve is describing, involves how each of these measured factors will influence overall performance. The ensemble level means deciding on the total workout volume, changes to said volume when something goes wrong, and plans need changing. At this high-level approach we do need more intuition, and less preconceived calculations. Hence a coach should be considering the holistic effects of training as they pertain to actual, long-term race results.

But again I reiterate that the level below needs isolation, so as not to be confused when deciding on workout details. For instance it is not in an athlete's control how 'light' their footstep falls. This is a function of running physics. An athlete is not at fault for being too young for a given training plan, or too old. Mental states are as important, hence should be considered in isolation, especially during traumatic times. Here are cases where intuition must stop and hard reasoning begin.

Apologies if this all seems a little high-handed, but it's been a long week. In such times I take refuge in abstraction. Right now it's a very level-2 world for me.

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