Coaching philosophy Education for grown-ups Rants

Teaching without ends

”The teacher must be capable of being more teachable than the apprentices”

Martin Heidegger

What separates successful athletes from merely athletes is the ability to execute fast and intense movements.

However, the attempt to forcefully perform a movement will create tension in muscles other than those needed for the movement, resisting the movement rather than supporting it. If you tell people to focus on engaging a muscle, it makes them think, which slows down movement. You can’t be thinking about your “traps”, “glutes” or “lats” when you need to move fast.

Relaxing helps to avoid giving force to the movement, instead letting the force come from the momentum of a turn of a foot or the hip, from a step or a stance, from the precision of the directness of the movement.

Moreover, relaxing is not only about the physical effort. It is also a matter of attitude, both in the moment and in the approach to training. Practicing and performing requires a quiet mind: a mind that is empty of expectations, ideas, and presuppositions. A mind that just does it.

How could one understand what it means to relax in a particular movement until one mastered that movement and, in a way, has become that movement, when at the same time mastery of the movement in itself involves already being relaxed. How can we teach and explain something that seems to require an experience of that thing in order to understand it?

It seems impossible to teach such subjective abilities through only direct instructions of how particular movements are performed. Rather it seems that coaching should be as much about showing the method of practicing, as giving direct instructions, and to instill faith in those methods.

This requires expertise, knowledge and facts, but also courage, empathy and understanding, and sometimes I think coaches spend a little too much time developing the first of these qualities, and a little too little time on the others.

One of my favorite pastimes is watching coaches who balance all these qualities when they teach, watching them expertly swing in tune with a group of students and guide them to new learnings about themselves and others. Something similar to the conducted attunement of an orchestra, where there is harmony between different instruments that can both be recognized as part of the same melody, as well as distinctly different from each other. 

Watching that makes me all warm inside.

I once got reprimanded by my seniors for saying in an opening speech for a course that I was about to teach that I was “a coach just like them, only possibly with more experience of teaching”, and that I invited open discussions that coming weekend, in order to create a better course.

This apparently, by my seniors standards, gave a bad impression of my organization. I was to be clear that I was to teach, to instruct, and the attendees would take in my knowledge. There had to be a clear hierarchy, for the pupils to take me as seriously.

I do not agree with them.

When it comes to parenthood, something that is often stressed is the importance of consistency with decisions and consequences. It is said to cause confusion when parents change their mind, and that this will harm the process of learning and hinder the conformation to the social sanctions that govern our practices.

Personally I think that what is really detrimental to this process of learning is when the parent does not change their mind when confronted by sound arguments.

The art of coaching is no different in this respect. Arguments are something to be taken seriously and compromises are often both possible and necessary.

As a coach or teacher, you can rely on the power you have by virtue of your office. It can be the right to distribute tasks, decide what is wrong or right, promote or demote, punish or reward. But there is also another type of power, a more informal one, which is based on being the one with the most experience or the greatest wisdom.

Submission is never the most developmental approach in any context or relationship. If you want to see commitment and development over time, there are many indications that it is wiser to lean more on the informal power than the formal one.

“The community stagnates without the impulse of the individual. The impulse dies away without the sympathy of the community.”

William James

In our time, there is often a call for strong leaders who are clear and know the art of simplification, but what we need is primarily something else: Leaders who stop managing, manipulating and making fools of their followers or pupils.

The coach, much like his pupil, must have an open mind to oppose his natural reaction to get stuck in rigid models that might not apply to this situation. He must resist his tendency to look for sets of rules, for an explanation, a formal notion or something else that does not capture all the complexity of a concept such as “learning”.

But all this is fine and dandy – yeah yeah – “as a coach you need to keep your eyes open, adapt to situations and try not to be Hitler”? Isn’t this just another way of saying “it depends”? And as with all arguments that advance to this, necessary but insufficient point we need now to proceed to what it actually depends upon, or what we can do to make better decisions here and now.

So I am going to make two practical suggestions on how further the chances to be that good coach, the one with the “open eyes”.

“Knowledge consists of knowing that a tomato is a fruit, and wisdom consists of not putting it in a fruit salad”

Miles Kington

1. Describe before explaining

While athletes might be lacking in scientific knowledge, they tend to know a fair bit about their sports, and their practice of them. Discussions with them on these matters easily extend both into how to use the skills you have been working on in live action, and to sharpen the drills for improving them.

Ask the apparent questions in order to see what is already in front of your eyes: When do athletes struggle in racing or during competition?

At this point rid yourself of all the physiological models you have learned and describe those situations without explaining why they happen. That will momentarily rid you of preconceptions, and illuminate the path forward.

Use the language of the sport which is familiar to the athlete. You will move into a territory of training where your athletes have knowledge to add to yours. This will lead to relevant discussions on how to tweak the drills you will choose for them.

2. Learn a new skill

Us coaches do a lot of hard things like standing in front of a lot of people talking, directing and making decisions. But isn’t it often enough also the case that we no longer challenge ourselves with new skills while at the same time ask our athletes to do just that?

At this point in time we are often so far removed from learning new motor skills ourselves that we lose out on this aspect when we try to motivate people and encourage them when they learn such new skills that we ask them to do.

Perhaps we could be even better coaches if we would keep up to date with that feeling of how frustrating it is to be bad at something. How it is to damn well know how to do something, but still not be able to show it.

It is frustrating to fail. It requires finding positives in parts when the whole is a mess. Remembering this could be useful.

When asked for help or coaching we all too often show the final product, instead of meeting them where they are now. Instead of coming up with drills simple enough to provide a possibility for relaxation we show off.

Doing so can be more than a little demoralizing, and maybe we would recognize this better if we found ourselves on the other side of these situations regardless of how senior we are.

“A teacher who can show good, or indeed astounding results while he is teaching, is still not on that account a good teacher, for it may be that, while his pupils are under his immediate influence, he raises them to a level which is not natural to them, without developing their own capacities for work at this level, so that they immediately decline again once the teacher leaves the schoolroom.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein

Let’s take a practical example of bad coaching, where the coach specifically did not follow the advice above. The result was alienation of the athlete, with the risk of the athlete walking away from the challenge or even quit the sport.

The sport of this particular athlete was cycling, and to give you some background I could tell you about the short summers and long winters in Sweden, meaning a large chunk of the yearly training has to be done indoors.

When cycling on a spinning bike or a bike steadily mounted in a machine to provide resistance, the riders only have to focus on producing power, whereas normally they also have to control the direction and stability.

One of my neighbors asked me if I could show him how to ride a bike on rollers, you know, the kind of rollers that you just set a regular bike on. The bike moves freely, meaning it could easily fall off the rollers if you make the wrong movements.

Cycling on rollers might provide less physiological overload, because of their larger demands for creating stability. Peak force and power output are lower than on an ergometer, but the need for balance while producing it makes this training quite similar to actual cycling. I have seen far more transfer of improvements to real cycling because of this.

The internet is littered with videos of failed attempts while riding rollers . This is not strange at all, because in the beginning it’s a little bit like trying to run on ice.

One has to be relaxed, but as we have noted one does not relax just because one is being told to do so. This video I found on random is a very reasonable first attempt.

Anyway, I filmed myself riding in my living room and sent the video “for inspiration”.

How do you think he felt when he watched this? How much could he value whatever large steps forward he took on his first sessions, when he put them relative to this rather than where he started from?

Experts in all fields appear fluid and natural but in reality they have made conscious efforts to shape the way they perform. Simply having the same knowledge of how to perform exercise is not what makes great coaches great.

  • “The philosophy of dissonant children”,’s_wittgensteinian_philosophical_therapies_as_an_educational_conversation
  • “On Heidegger on Education and Questioning”,
  • “Quiet Minding and Investing in Loss”,
  • “Vi behöver en annan sorts ledare”,
Coaching philosophy Practical application Problem solving Rants

Commitment is an act, not a word.

“Only in failure, in the greatness of a catastrophe, can you know someone.”

E.M. Cioran

Picture some middle-aged dude with the habit of going down to the local wrestling club, always challenging the newcomers in the kids class to matches of greco-roman wrestling. He’s crushing them! Ripping them up! Throwing their little bodies in the air, slamming them back down on the floor, trash talking… He is 183-0 against them. He is the MAN.

Well, if Alexander Karelin, widely considered to be the greatest Greco-Roman wrestler of all time, would go down to the same club to wrestle the same kids he too would be 183-0 against those kids. If this was all that we had to go on to decide which is the better wrestler of our dude and the “The crane from Siberia”, apart from reverting into aesthetics, how would we ever know.

And how could our middle-aged friend ever truly know how good of a wrestler he is until he dares to challenge himself enough to fail, and therefore see where his limitations are?

Uncertainty is scary, but when you accept that uncertainty of things, the flip-side of that is that now you can go anywhere. If you accept the dangers of the Savanna, for example, you don’t have to stay crammed inside of that armored car on the road watching things from a distance.

But just like any experience that is quite special, it comes with a cost. And the cost of this type of existence is anxiety, dread, and all the rest of the feelings that come with plunging into the unknown.

For some to seek out, and stay, at these borders of what is comfortable comes completely natural.

For instance I remember meeting Dragos Stanica for the first and unfortunately only time in my life when I was teaching a Course for Eleiko in Brazil a few years back, while the Brazilian nationals in olympic weightlifting was held at the same venue.

Dragos, a former weightlifter, who represented Romania in the 1988 Games in Seoul, South Korea, now lives on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro from where he has his base, serving as the national coach for Brazilian weightlifting.

One of the nights, after the final day of competition, me and my colleague got Dragos by our table and when we got him started talking we never wanted it to end. That man had so many great stories from his life to tell, and it seemed all we had to do to enjoy them was to keep getting him (and us) beer.

He told us about his life, from his upbringing in a poor Romania, how he got to be a successful weightlifter, got recruited by a circus traveling the world, to stories on how he became the physical trainer for most of the Brazilian UFC superstars, and it just kept going, all the way into how he now lived permanently in a Brazilian favela, helping kids to learn to overcome their environment with his little weightlifting club as his teaching tool.

Of all the stories he told, the one I most often think back upon is the story of him starting weightlifting. He was 13 years old when he first ventured into a weightlifting club located in a basement.

“The lightest barbell they had was permanently loaded with 50 kilos, and I barely weighed more than that”, he said, “they showed me other lifters snatching it, and I wanted to do the same, but I failed miserably of course”.

He went on to give a picturesque description of how he came back, week after week, month after month, always failing to snatch the barbell from the floor over his head. It all seemed completely futile of course, but it became an obsession to him.

“And then one day I snatched it. I was very surprised” and he took another sip of the Brazilian beer, looking as happy as he must have been in that basement on that day so many years ago.

”If to describe a misery were as easy to live through it!”

E.M. Cioran

But most people are not like Dragos, not even if they are elite athletes. Faced with the possibility of failure, many might rather walk away from the challenge completely if not helped by someone to stand firm in a sudden storm of emotions.

For infants, all signals from the body or the world around them are causes of panic and result in screaming because they have not yet learned to put them into words.

With the help of its surroundings, it then trains itself to interpret both it and itself, and many things are then no longer perceived as threatening. This allows the child to move on and make wiser decisions. The screams are exchanged for productive responses.

But that presupposes that it has not been trained to shout when it is just hungry or experiencing something else normal.

That, in turn, requires the help of responsible adults.

Anxiety is an integral part of performing in sport for a majority of athletes, regardless of what level they perform. Being able to manage that anxiety can really help to produce a better performance. Under pressure, some athletes can produce a “peak performance” where they actually perform better, but the risk to be overcome with nerves is also always present.

This, in my mind, is one of the most important tasks of the coach: to help and guide their athletes to dare to challenge themselves, to dare to stay in these uncertain situations despite the flush of emotions that may overcome them. This is hardly done by pretending that those emotions aren’t real.

Many times I have seen trainers reassure their athletes when affirmation more likely was what they needed from them. One situation comes to mind, in the warming-up area for the European Regionals of CrossFit in Madrid. I was there coaching team CrossFit Nordic in their pursuit to put them on the podium of the competition.

Arriving with the team to the warmup-up area to get ready for our first event, I saw this Swedish athlete who I knew, running and looking unhappy on one of the non-motorized treadmills. Knowing that the first individual event wasn’t until all of the team events finished up, I walked up to her and asked what she was doing there and where her coach was.

“I don’t think I can compete in the next event, I don’t think I am good enough” was her reply, and you could see in her eyes that she felt both scared and lonely.

After some time her trainer appeared, and I overheard his answers to her expressing her doubts of herself as “Come on, you’re great, you’ll do fine, stay strong!” and I watched her try to smile and to look strong.

This athlete quit individual competition after this Regionals, which was the athletes first.

Maybe this would not have happened if the coach, instead of trying to sweep the feelings of doubt under the rug, would have affirmed those feelings, helped to put some words on them, asked if she has felt like this before, if so what she did, and how that felt.

To tell her that it must be hard, but nevertheless normal to feel this way.

Anxiety is a state comprising both physical and psychological symptoms due to feeling apprehensive in relation to a perceived threat. Each individual may experience anxiety slightly differently and it also may differ from situation to situation. For example, one Olympic weightlifter I worked with couldn’t get themselves onto the platform without feeling like passing out, while many CrossFit athletes would be physically sick waiting in line for their heats, or cyclists frequently abandoning longer and tedious races, not because of tactical reasons, but overcome with feelings of doubt.

It is natural when experiencing anxiety to want to get rid of the feelings because they are unpleasant, therefore people can seek solutions to avoid feeling like that.

If the anxiety becomes extreme an athlete may even get to the point where the only way to not feel like that is to stop competing or even quit the sport. This is a solution, as it might put a stop to these strong unwanted feelings, but the athlete might by doing so lose what’s most important to them (their sport).

A better option would be to accept anxiety, embrace it and learn ways of living with it.

Using only reason and empiricism to do this will for some always fail, for these methods can not explain reality with certainty. Then, to be able to cope with this uncertainty, one must accept that the aversions causing these feelings are real and that they are felt in this way, rational or not.

Letting them be real, then look around to see the things, in the same situation, that are experienced as positive. While some things are outside of our control, uncertain and in many ways terrifying, some things are always not.

Continually doing so the floods of emotions experienced in these situations will be decreasing with time. The wolves that hunted you become dogs, in time they might even bring you your slippers.

– But I believe what you are experiencing is a feeling.
– It’s a horrible feeling.
– I can see it’s unpleasant.
– But like all feelings, it will surely pass.

From the movie “The Party” (2017), Directed by Sally Potter

This should not only be in the competitive setting. It has to start in the training hall, where one should not “win all workouts”. I am a huge believer in not pursuing perfection, for perfection is impossible to catch.

I have in previous posts argued that long periods of basic training has drawbacks when it comes to effectiveness and planning, producing unwanted adaptations, such as significant decreases in power and speed abilities, and taking up a lot of the training time available.

But these are not the only pitfalls of excessive periods of basic training.

First, the high intensity movements used in competition give the body fewer options to cope than using pre-tensioning strategies available through the stiffness of the muscles tendons. The lower intensity of basic training allows for, and it usually is done to strengthen the muscles contractile tissue.

But with less demands on the tendons, we risk that they become inefficient and come game time, when the luxury of inefficiency is not available leading to injuries (which put a stop to everything).

Second, getting back to my main point: if training looks too much like competition it becomes unbearable, or at least it does not provide enough variation to provide the means for improvements. But on the flipside, if it looks too little like competition it has no way of helping the athlete to cope, “learning the language of”, the uncertainty of competition.

Instead of more is more-approaches, where more necessarily means further from the demands found in competition, I once again propose a different not more-strategy.

Continuously challenging the individual participant by progressively increasing task difficulty during practice enhances motor learning and optimizes performance, while also helping the athlete to safely develop strategies to counter the frustration of being exposed to the slight possibility of failing.

“Failing to plan, is planning to fail”, and while this is good advice, as a coach you need to remember that the experience on the competition floor often is a very different experience despite all the training that precedes it, which often gives rise to emotions not able to plan for.

The way of being a better coach then turns out to be pretty similar in the training hall and on the field of competition: to take one’s nose out of the plan and look at the situation at hand.

  1. See possible improvements for each athlete and manipulate exercise in order for these improvements to arise.
  2. Do not reassure. This discounts the athlete’s fears, makes him doubt himself even more and reinforces the anxious behavior that got your attention. Avoid acting on your first impulse to counter them by reason. Instead: listen and confirm that feelings of anxiety, fear, doubt are normal.
  3. Do not say what an athlete should not do or cannot do (Such a list would be virtually endless and quite useless). Focus on communicating what he or she can or should do.

Experts in all fields appear fluid and natural but in reality they have made conscious efforts to shape the way they perform. Simply having the same knowledge of how to perform exercise is not what makes great coaches great.

If so many people know how to do a barbell clean and the basics of how to coach it, why are some so good at developing lifters and others are not?

Science is great for predicting the average response in a certain situation, and while this is a good starting point that is all it is. The great coach also realizes that they are working with humans, with all the unpredictability and erratic behavior that might follow from that.

Coaching philosophy Exercise selection Rants Training theory

Fail again. Fail better.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”

Because Einstein said it, it’s got to be true?

Well, first of all there is no substantive evidence that Einstein wrote or spoke the statement above. The linkage to the genius whose hair was always uncombed, clothing always disheveled, and who never wore socks occurred long after his death. It is one of many completely unsupported quotes attributed to him.

When one looks for the very influential statements’ real origins it seems like it originated in one of the twelve-step communities. Twelve-step programs are mutual aid organizations for the purpose of recovery from substance addictions, behavioral addictions and compulsions. Being communities who greatly value anonymity adds to the difficulty to identify a specific author to the saying.

Regardless of who first said what, the idea that one can try something and instantly see if it resulted in anything useful or not, is something that we mostly take for granted. From this we, usually without thinking much about it, similarly take for granted that if something did produce positive effects it would do so again if we kept doing it. 

When doing so we fail to see that not all change and not all strains within a system are visible on it’s outside or by the parameters we measure it by.

Further it can make us rush on to try new things too soon. To give up when we would need to be patient and let the things we do bring about the change they could, given some time.

Systems can be analyzed in terms of the changes of their states over time. A state is an attempt to characterize, or define, a system by a certain set of variables. When a system changes its state its variables also change as a response to its environment and a completely different behavior might emerge.

This change is called linear if it is directly proportional to time, the system’s current state, or changes in the environment. They are called nonlinear if it is not proportional to either of them. In a nonlinear system very small changes might sometimes give rise to great changes of the system, and vice-versa.

Complex systems are typically non-linear, changing at different rates depending on their states and their environment. They have stable states, called attractor states. These are states that are preferred, and govern system behavior to stay the same even if perturbed. They could also be unstable, at which the systems can be disrupted by a small perturbation.

Examples of complex systems are the ecosystem, the weather, forests, organisms, the human brain, infrastructure, social and economic organizations (like cities) and ultimately the entire universe.

When these attractors are in such unstable states, exposure to what might look like the same environment, or such tiny changes of it that they can hardly be seen, could quickly completely change the entire systems behavior.

This type of change, which characterizes much of nature, is often abrupt and discontinuous. Systems experience periods of turbulence as attractors destabilize and create the potential for phase transitions (sometimes called bifurcations or tipping points). During these transitions, systems reorganize into new patterns of functioning.

A familiar example is the transition from liquid water into gas when boiling water. Under gradually increasing heat, the water remains liquid until the tipping point of 100°C is met and the sudden transition toward the gaseous phase takes place.

If one wanted to boil water but gave up when nothing happened after a minute or two, one would be prematurely looking for other ways to get things cooking.

Samuel Beckett, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and most famous for his play Waiting for Godot. A play that was famously described by Irish critic Vivian Mercier as in which “nothing happens, twice”.

Two dysfunctional men encounter others along the road as they wait forever and in vain for the arrival of someone named Godot. They fill their idle hours with a series of mundane acts and trivial conversations as the world of the play operates on nothingness.

Surely the author of such a play could offer a counterpoint to the dominating “definition of insanity”? Something more useful to handle the everyday struggle of nothingness without prematurely abandoning or giving up on one’s efforts?

Sure enough, In 1983 Beckett offered a different perspective in his work Worstward Ho:

“All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

What Beckett is telling us is that no matter how good the attempt, all actions inevitably fail to be perfect, then one must make another attempt and another, and the effort is in the attempt – not in the product.

In a non-linear world one could be considered mad if one would think that doing the same thing over and over again could not produce a different result. For both the person and the environment where the action is carried out is always different, if only so subtly.

Possibly the hardest thing to do as a trainer is to back off. To realize that while you are very important in some parts of the process of learning, most of the time must be spent simply doing.

I have a friend who is a very accomplished trainer, and who have few superiors when it comes to designing exercises. His skillful eyes see not only unsatisfactory movement outcomes, but also at what point initial flaws that might be causing them arose. On top of that he has great understanding for manipulation of the exercise to open up for better movement patterns, as well as being skilled in communication.

We often teach together and his imagination and sharp eyes never seize to impress me. Then things go wrong. He’ll have the athlete do the exercise a few times, or maybe a week, watching closely. If he sees better outcomes, he goes on to take on the next pattern to be sharpened.

Change takes time.

Much like parents often end up trying to fulfill their dreams through their children, teachers often get too involved in the process. Over-coaching and pushing too quickly can be just detrimental to the development of new and efficient attractor states as the opposite.

In other words, it simply happens. The coach, the midwife of all those new skills, is simply momentarily assisting in the process, but not making it happen.

Practicing and performing require a quiet mind: a mind that is empty of expectations, ideas, and presuppositions, that is open to what happens in the presence of every aspect of a movement.

To be a masters trainer, on top of all your technical wisdom, you need to be patient.

  1. To see possible improvements and manipulate exercise in order for these improvements to arise.
  2. To communicate so that the student understands what constitutes a good rep versus a less good rep.
  3. Stepping away and letting the student find his or her way of increasing the frequency of good reps, until it is something done without thinking. The failed reps in the process is what eventually lets the good reps just happen. (very hard, and often forgotten)
  4. Staying cool and detached yet a little bit longer, remembering that just because some good reps are being done, it does not mean that they just happen, just yet. (requires the patience worthy of Buddha himself)

Coaches momentarily assisting the process I said… But sometimes that moment is long. One week? Four weeks? Months?

It is impossible to tell how long it takes for a new attractor state to emerge, but in my experience it varies not only between individuals, but also with time for the same person. All we have is to stay rooted in the present and to evaluate the fluctuations of the athletes results.

When an attractor is getting more stable there will be less fluctuations in performance. In order to see this we cannot vary the exercises and workouts too much.

A master coach who did take this to great lengths was Anatoliy Bondarchuk. A former Olympian himself, he turned to coaching after his career and is widely regarded as the most accomplished hammer throws coach of all times. He developed what can best be described as completely response-based programs. His method largely consisted of repeating the same session over and over again, with no wave loading of training variables and abilities, and no changes in strategic or qualitative elements.

Will there be no variance in such a system? Surely there will be, for in a complex world both the person and the environment is always slightly different.

Plotting the response to similar sessions or exercises over time one can clearly see the phase transitions of our athletes.

A program with little variation allows you to see the states of the system over time. When data and form seems stable, then we can also assume that the attractor states are stable. When this happens, but not before, we should be increasing task difficulty in order to force adaptations via yet more phase changes.

One note of warning though – one might be tempted to think that we now know how this athlete responds to training, and would be able to predict the time to adaptation or phase transitions for the athlete. But when a system changes its state, a different behavior will have emerged.

While we now know our process of exercise selection and communication likely functions well for this athlete, we can’t ever relax and be the lazy coach.

“For the young the days go fast and the years go slow; for the old the days go slow and the years go fast.”

Anna Quindlen

Regardless of what specific method one adheres to, for there are many possibly great ones, one thing I see more from the experienced coaches is that they are likely to let things take their time and by doing so allowing for more possible growth of their athletes.

Coaching philosophy Programming examples Rants

More is more, but not necessarily better

“O Icarus,”
he said, “I warn you: fly a middle course.
If you’re too low, sea spray may damp your wings;
and if you fly too high, the heat is scorching.
Keep to the middle then.

Ovid, “Metamorphoses

Reading and listening to coaching podcasts these last six months one of the questions that the COVID-19 situation have made people to ask and coaches to ponder is the question of how little one can train in order to not revert the adaptation to training. While one can certainly see why that question would seem important in a world of quarantines and temporary lock-down of training facilities, in many ways it is an expression of the doubtful idea that hidden deep within there is something “naturally you” that you can “enlarge with stress”. A “ground zero” that if not continually challenged you fall back upon.

Hans Selye wrote his famous letter to Nature magazine in 1936, describing how rodents exposed to a variety of nocuous or toxic agents (like cold, surgery, forced exercise, adrenaline and various drugs) responded to these diverse stimulus with pathophysiological changes that had some common features (like enlargement of certain organs). If the treatment was continued with relatively small doses, the animals became resistant and their organs returned to their normal state. Later the terms “general alarm reaction” and “general adaptation syndrome” were proposed for the description of these two phases of the response.

This shaped the current understanding of biological adaptation and the associated terminology, like stress, homeostasis, fight or flight to populate the scientific and popular narrative. A narrative implicating that the physiological stress response follows a stereotypical non-specific trajectory of being predominantly caused by physiological challenge and that its consequences are primarily physiological in nature. Based on this model, for a parameter to deviate from its setpoint value, some internal mechanism must be broken.

In order to force adaptation to training, one should add enough – but not too much – mechanical stress and little by little, in a very predictable way, you would be able to expand your capacity. But as the original setpoint would still be where it always was it would mean that if the stress would discontinue you would fall back to a relatively stable equilibrium maintained by those physiological processes. However evidence accumulates that setpoints are not constant. Their variations, rather than signifying error, are apparently designed to reduce error by anticipating and modulating future needs and resource allocation.

The theory of allostasis proposes that the first mediator – the event first triggering the stress response – is not a physiological stressor. The response is rather triggered by the changing emotional state of the individual brought about by personal interpretation of their capacity to cope with the imposed challenge. This would explain why the structurally rigid and perfectly linear training systems are only successful in text-books, and that we should shift our focus to the increasingly apparent effects of non-physical factors like emotional regulation, anticipation and learning in order to design well functioning training protocols.

In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, while in practice there is

Benjamin Brewster

The perfect predictable plan might be a beautiful idea, but is as likely to be real as the treasure at the end of the rainbow. In reality adaptation is dependent upon context, constitution, history, and persistently transitioning biological states. Studying successful strength-sport coaches will reveal a common theme: very few exercises, relatively consistent loading (even from cycle to cycle) and a focus on technical mastery challenged by increases in perturbations and contextual interferences.

Coaching legend Dan Pfaff, a proponent of minimalist training plans, notes that generally training regiments are too dense and that the goal of a great coach should be to see how little their athletes can do and still improve and be great. It’s all too easy to create an addiction to work and density of work. When new athletes try harder, they get better but there is a tipping point as they develop where this actually becomes a problem, where trying harder no longer works. The athlete is now a different athlete, and would need different not more to improve. More will inevitably lead to injury, and injuries put a stop everything.

With this in mind the question posed in light of the pandemic seems to be the result of a flawed and potentially dangerous way of thinking. One does not fall back toward anything, as that thing does not exist any more. The exposure to stimulus, both inside and outside of the training facility, constantly changes who you are, not just biologically but also psychologically, and most important of all in a non-linear fashion.

You always adapt into something that is your bodies best guess at what you will be able to cope with in the current and anticipated circumstances. Thinking you do not respond in this way will potentially lead you to fall into the trap of monotony and over-saturation.

And after all, if stupidity did not, when seen from within, look so exactly like talent as to be mistaken for it, and if it could not, when seen from the outside, appear as progress, genius, hope, and improvement, doubtless no one would want to be stupid, and there would be no stupidity.

Robert Musil, “The man with no qualities”

Of course, you would say, but is this really an issue? I mean, you would have seen every coach in the world roll their eyes while talking about other coaches who do not understand this simple point. That “too much is too much” (of course it is) and that “more is not better”. And if everyone is saying that they are not guilty of making these mistakes, then no mistakes are made?

And yes, this might be true, but as true as when you are a little drunk, feeling like a million dollars you tend to fall for the tempting thought that if you double the intake of alcohol you’re gonna have twice the fun! And so, by thinking in linear and physiological terms only, and not considering the effect your (tipsy ?) emotional state has on both stress response and behavior, you go for that quick satisfaction rather than to play the long-game.

And often enough the same coaches use the image of a pyramid when describing how training works, hinting that a stable general base must be built to support the specifics. And is not that an expression of the very same oversimplification as the theory of homeostasis taking on the concept that has been successful when working with things and try to use it when working with humans?

Worse still, backed up with (faulty) logic makes it very hard not to go for the same mistake over and over which I think can be seen in a lot of training programs.

The mental image of the simple and predictable physical universe, where what worked before will always work again is so tempting because it reduces confusion and cognitive dissonance by being inherently measurable. And what is more easily measurable than training volume (but also unfortunately all too easily mistaken for functional productivity)?

I believe in the type of program often referred to as “complex” or “concurrent”. It generally includes no general preparation phases where one would do little to no specificity, as well as no specific preparation phases where one would do the opposite. Instead I have my athletes do a little but not too little of everything all the time, as growth and self-organization in a dynamic complex system can be the result of an amplification of change elsewhere in the system. Who can tell exactly what an athlete needs to be able to take that next step?

Instead of having the long term macro-perspective control what I do day to day I work with relatively little organizational variation between cycles. Then I monitor how the athletes respond (how they move, how they feel) on a daily or weekly basis. Information I use to prescribe exercises with enough contextual challenge to force adaptation and learning (rather than trying to force this with just more reps). Do I not add workload at all? Sure I do, but I do it based on acute factors rather than from mathematical reasoning.

To provide an insight in how this might look in practice: I usually rotate 2-3 very similar weeks, or blocks if you want to think of it like that. The next rotation does not have changes in loading per se, but novelty is induced by slightly changing how exercises are performed within a fairly general and simple theme.

This example is for our sprint cyclists (who all follow similar outline with some personal adjustments) but I do not structure the complementary training much differently for other cyclists or endurance athletes.

The general idea of force production as a contextual skill is similar for the CrossFit, racket sports or team sports athletes I train, but as their sports are so much more complex (than cycling, running, skiing) the outlines i write for them differ quite a bit. I will follow up with more specific examples of how the training blocks I write for open sports look in a later post.

no wave loading – once a ’program’ is prescribed, it is simply repeated over and over again without much change until an adaptation response is observed – hopefully leading to a phase shift in performance

Some benefits to this type of training is that it makes it easy to adapt to with actual performance goals in mind. Programs that empathize large variations in between phases will make it hard to see what is actually driving the trend. The smaller, simpler program allow for scalability and for data collection of the most important variables all season long.

Other benefits are that one constantly addresses the systems long-term behavior, producing a stable state of performance. While one might not always be on the absolute top, we’re always damn close to it without any drastic changes either in volume or intensity. By doing so we are reducing the risk of injury from either over or under-training.

Corona virus Problem solving Rants Training theory

The search for the new normal

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown

H.P. Lovecraft

To stop the outbreak of the Corona virus we have radically changed almost everything we do: how we work, exercise, socialize, shop, manage our health and educate our kids.

We all want things to go back to normal. But what most of us have probably not yet realized is that it won’t go back to how it used to be in a few weeks, or even a few months. Some things never will be like they were at all.

Technology has been used quite extensively and successfully in some areas in order to work and to attend schools without gathering in numbers anymore, but the exercise industry has not been able to counter the sheer amount of loss of daily movement that the strategy of social distancing cause.

There’ll be some adaptation, of course: gyms could start selling home equipment and online training sessions, which is better than nothing, but will in no way be good enough to keep exercise efficient enough to carry the slack of the situation.

So, if not home or online training is the answer, what is? How can training be modified and used to handle this “new normal” in order to maintain physical and mental health and build healthy habits to keep us strong?

When it comes to the response to training there are clear individual variations in adaptations. While something works well to increase capacity for one person, someone else generally exhibit no meaningful improvements from the same training. An outcome that conventionally leads to them being labeled as “non-responders” to this particular type of training.

This use of language is problematic. First is the risk of promoting the general perception that exercise is not universally beneficial, and hence negatively affecting motivation for exercise. And something that is well established in science is that exercise has positive effects on health over a vast number of areas including reducing obesity, enhancing cardiac functions, reducing a large variety of disease states, improving function in life and improving mental health.

Secondly it could cause people to give up on specific modes of exercise prematurely, for instance thinking that “aerobic exercise does not work for me” or “strength training does not work for me”, when possibly it is exactly that type of training that should be carried out. However there is evidence that the number of non-responders is reduced when increasing exercise intensity and/or duration. This seems to be a useful strategy for lowering, or possibly even eliminating, non-response to training. In short: if you do it either hard or a lot, exercise seem to cause measurable adaptations in everyone.

A study in 2017 by Stanford University researchers using smartphone step-tracking data to map how active people in different parts of the world are analyzed data from 111 different countries found that Swedes took 6,000 steps per day on average while Brits took around 5,500 and Americans less than 5,000. Since walking is to be considered a very low intensity physical activity it will not have the same adaptations as more intense training, but it still form the backdrop of regular motion that forms the base of all movement that we do. More intense training adds upon that foundation.

Social distancing or all out quarantine radically decreases the amount of movement performed during normal daily routines. Most of the daily movement was done going to work and various social activities. Even if one was taking the car or the bus to work, rather than walking or biking, the vast amount of small movements within a day in society, as walking to the vehicle of choice, going for lunch with your colleagues and just to fetch “that cup of coffee” added more movement than is reasonable to replace at home for most people.

With large variations my best guess would be that something like 75% of regular movement have disappeared from most peoples lives. It’s not about that number – we can say it’s 50% – it is still likely to affect general well-being negatively when not doing a large chunk of the usual physical activity.

The body adapts to the environment it is exposed to, which is a good thing and something we use to cause adaptations to training. It means that we can become stronger and healthier! The opposite is also true, that without sufficient stimuli we can become weaker, sicker and more fragile. When we remove a large portion of our movement we expose ourselves to that risk.

The negative adaptation to that loss of movement won’t be something that we notice, but instead it will sneak up upon us. And with the realization that things won’t go back to normal for a long while we also must realize that this is something we need to tackle now, not later.

What’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men to rise above themselves.

Albert Camus

Society has evolved over thousands of years, so as to minimize the cognitive burden on individuals. And we call that minimization ‘habit formation’. We have developed rules of thumb that allow us to “just do” things that in our environment have been more or less constant. But when that environment changes, those habits no longer fit, and we cannot use the same rules of thumbs anymore.

So when normality changes it is also the time for us to rethink habit. It’s almost as if all these years you’ve been playing chess, and now someone comes along and says “Oh, now your queen moves like a pawn and the rook moves diagonally only”. Things that used to be almost automated now has to be cognitively decided. Those changes are difficult to process and confront.

Everyone wants to be healthier, but it’s very difficult to change habits. When doing so we are more likely to succeed if we impose gradual change that we can build upon, rather than a Draconian change of a large magnitude. It’s also about being able to decide to succeed: consider the difference between deciding to cut the caloric intake in half and to go to the gym three times a week. Restricting eating is something that has to be done all the time, continually throughout the whole week, whereas going to the gym is something that you just has to succeed with those few times. That’s why adding a few bouts of training are more likely to become habitual in the long run.

But like we established before, training has to be either high in load or high in volume and if we are replacing that vast amount of movement with just a few short sessions at the gym every week then it has to be rather intense. Intense here obviously means relative to the individual but “going for the heavier weights” when lifting or for the “intense and short efforts” when doing fitness. Rather than ending up doing 3 times 20 very sub-maximal reps to “get some burn”, instead opt for 4-6 reps where the last one is really, really hard. Ducking the “non-response” with 30 second sprints, with some longer rest in between them rather than going for that one longer slower interval (which could be an option if one would train more often and move more in the daily life)..

This is where home training, by yourself, through an app in your phone or with some kind of online sessions just won’t suffice in the long run. High intensity and high load training is very hard to maintain or frightening to start with on your own for most people. Social interaction and good coaching is often necessary in order to make training hard enough, in order not to be a “non-responder”.

My main point here is that people should, especially in this new normality, seek out a training facility, possibly where training is conducted in smaller groups managed by responsible and well educated coaches.

Doing so makes the step to get started minimal, and the possibility of success maximal: two things that largely benefit the habituation of training. I would suggest it to be some kind of “micro-gym”, since those have fewer members, minimizing risk of contagion while still offer social belonging and a multitude of social factors enabling you to train hard, while feeling safe and having fun!

Social distancing might be necessary in order to save lives, but they are also likely have consequences on mental health. In research conducted in China and Canada during the SARS-epidemic in 2003 found that a very large number of people that was quarantined came down with psychiatric diagnoses, especially post traumatic stress disorder. This risk was especially elevated for those with low incomes or at risk for unemployment.

Physical health benefits of exercise may take some time to happen, but where training seem to have benefits acutely is improving mental health, possible through providing some sense of control which could help to manage anxiety. A very important reason to not hesitate to keep training.

But is training reasonable during times of epidemic outbreak, or would it increase the risk of being infected, and if so, to participate in spreading the virus? Training has been shown to increase markers of inflammation, could this not be considered harmful and possibly irresponsible?

It is true that studies have shown that high intensity, intermittent exercise for relatively brief overall exercise time elicits a small inflammatory response. However physical exercise also promotes increases in the immunological function principally through anti-inflammatory response, so given a few weeks time the exposure to training have likely lowered the risk of getting sick, and with this you would be actively and successfully hindering further transmission.

Additionally, it seems that we can choose training intensity in order to mitigate the risk even from the beginning. Prolonged aerobic exercise induces a much more exaggerated inflammatory response than that of short duration high intensity interval training. So given the choice between lifting weights/doing a few sprints and adding mileage running track or road bike we might lean toward the former.

Another argument for seeking out that training facility with responsible and well educated coaches able to provide intensive training possibly conducted in small groups, because, and I repeat myself, doing intense training on your own is way harder than in a social setting guided by knowledgeable coaches.

The time to start to develop those habits for the new normal is now, not later. Things that we took for granted in society, things that are extraordinarily important for us, as human beings, human proximity and conversation and group living have been challenged. Hopefully, we will return to that again, but we might not.

A society more empirical, more analytical, more cooperative, more prosocial is something we should focus our attention towards today, maybe starting that process with a set of back squats at the gym or an all out sprint on the track?

Rants Training theory

A Case for the case study

Well, it may be all right in practice, but it will never work in theory

Warren Buffett

On a course for trainers that I teach, we quite early in the course teach how to teach the squat. Since I have taught this for many many years now, I know exactly how it almost always plays out.

It starts, after the initial greetings and a short warmup, with me asking the group to do some squats. I take the opportunity to look at how the group I have this week moves and acts while doing this. Then I ask the question: “How deep should you squat?” and wait for the usual answers:

– “Below parallel”, “Hip crease below the top of the knee”, “You should not get to where you butt wink”, etc

But then, after awhile, from somewhere in the room someone will say the magical two words…

– “It depends.”

The whole class will give out an “oooohh”, and possible an “aaaaaah” and look to the philosopher of the group that just stepped out of the shadows. Of course, how could we have used such simple methods when of course it depends! The philosopher has a confident smile on his face, knowing that he not just shown that he is ahead of the pack but also that he did good to push them off the peak of Mount Stupid into the unavoidable Valley of despair. And on top of that he had let the group know that he for one had left the simple answers behind, and ventured forth into the land of the gurus.

Then I ask our friend the philosopher the question that is usually left unasked: “Sure, but of what does it depend”? Here your guess is as good as mine of what I will get back, but some usual ones are “the length of the femur”, “the client’s mobility”, “the skill level of the client”, “on what he need to do“… The theme being, again, that it depends. Very seldom do I get anything that I can actually use to say how deep the person ahead of me should be asked to squat, and when I follow up with “sure, ok, how deep should I squat?” there is almost never any distinct answers given.

In some ways the first answers was more usable, even while they were less fulfilling.

Then of course, we proceed to give an answer to that question, on what it actually depends, so that we can give clear advice on how to squat no matter femur length, mobility or skill-levels.

One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision

Bertrand Russel

I had a lunch recently with my friend Johan, where we, among a myriad of other things *, talked about coaching blogs. Johan voiced his opinion that this type of blogs are so full of platitudes that he bet he could internet-troll the whole genre with a blog containing absolutely no actual advice but cliches, truisms and common banality. Add in some links to the latest craze and no one would be able to separate his fake blog from most of the other (which, presumably, is not trolling the coaching world).

* I am lying of course, we pretty much only talked about sprint training

Well, he makes a good point: not much actual usable advice is given on the internet. And even when that is done the situation where it should be applied is seldom spoken about in any depth. It’s similar to if IKEA would deliver furniture, but leave out the instruction manual. How on earth would anyone get any furniture assembled then!?

With every method spoken about in broad terms, with every problem described, at least one case or anecdotal story on what was actually done in that situation should be delivered. This would make it possible for other coaches to think about how that situation differs from the one he or she has at hand, and to decide if they should try this method too.

With case stories we get a structured way to disseminate practical application and relevant localized approaches that bridge theory and situated practice, in a reciprocal process. This is the thing I love the most about trainer summits, that it’s common that the speakers describe real life scenarios, without the need to say that this would work as a universal principle.

Well, I am certainly guilty of speaking in broad terms, but I will also try to hold myself accountable to think on, and to try to present, practical applications for the concepts I put forward.

Cycling Rants

2 tickets to the Gun show

For quite some years ago I read an article on the notorious website by Dan Trink. Dan is, amongst many (?) other things, the creator of the training program “two tickets to the Gun show” and can be said to be a specialist on something that have been a bit pushed to the side by the “functional” trend in the training world: arms. Giant arms. For no other reason than to be non-functional, but huge (pronounced hey-uge), hey-uge as f*ck.

The article starts off something like this: ”You want big arms. A pair of huge, veiny, triumphant mo-fos hanging from your shoulder sockets like thick slabs of well-aged beef. You want arms so big that when you go into a tattoo parlor they charge you for extra ink”. He has a fun way of expressing himself and his love for muscles, the arm-crazy man, in if for no other reason i think you should check him out solely for this quality.

And when I saw this picture I took awhile back of my friend Sven, I thought that maybe someone should tell Dan that about the only thing you need to do to get “sleeve-splitting arms” is to sprint on your bike (not to often, really, but as fast as you can), make split -squats (not to often, really, but as heavy as you can) and three sets of pullups a week?