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Cycling Phase shifting Training theory

Phase shifting pt 1 – Order and chaos

Mechanistic models constituted the first major scientific discourse and paved the way for the future development of science. With the core ideas being the Newtonian laws of motion, the notions of gravity and mass and the perception of time as an arrow the metaphor of the world as a machine took hold.

We lived in a stable clockwork universe just waiting to be described and understood in order to replace chaos and uncertainty with order and predictability. This drive for predictability and control manifested itself in a science which focused its attention on linear phenomena since those mathematical functions could be expressed and used in ways easy to understand and solve.

These linear models focused their attention to negative feedback, or homeostasis, where the product of a reaction leads to a decrease in that reaction. And while this is an essential condition for stability of a system, and thus well suited for dealing with engineering problems and machine design, it does a poor job of describing growth, self-organization and the non-linear relationships where the initial change to a parameter of a system results in an amplification of change elsewhere in the system.

Most sciences now holds the reverse to be true, that linear processes are the exception and not the rule and that nature is fundamentally non-linear.

”Whenever you look at very complicated systems in physics or in biology, you generally find that the basic components and the basic laws are quite simple; the complexity arises because you have a great many of these simple components interacting simultaneously. The complexity is actually in the organisation – the myriad possible ways that the components can interact.” (Stephen Wolfram)

This view is in direct opposition to reductionist approaches where the properties of the system are the mere aggregation of their constituent parts. Complex systems are a dynamic network of many agents acting and reacting to what other agents are doing. The competition and cooperation between those agents produces an overall behavior of the system, which can be said to be emergent. The emergent properties of complex systems are therefore properties that cannot be deduced from the properties of the individual parts. The system is larger than its parts.

And as complex adaptive systems include all living organisms including the social manifestations between them, it also include the adaptions to training. To me this explain why I have almost never seem adaptations to slowly go in one direction only, but to vary around a stable state which then suddenly might be shifted and become the new stable state that physical performance varies around.

The exploration of non-linear functions revealed the phenomena of bifurcations in dynamical systems. Bifurcations are when a small change made to a parameter of a system causes a sudden qualitative change in the systems long-run behavior.

”Systems reach points of bifurcation when their behavior and future pathways becomes unpredictable and new higher order structures may emerge” (John Urry)

For certain inputs the system will respond to all perturbations by settling back to an established steady state. And all of a sudden, when the system reaches a point of bifurcation the system will develop two alternative states that it will settle into depending on the perturbations applied to it. This can also be described as a phase-shift within the system, producing a new behavior, but one cannot tell what stimuli and to what part of the system that will cause such a shift.

In my experience, when it comes to adaptation to training, these shifts appear suddenly, and sometimes from what seems very random and unexpected. But they do not appear to be linear at all, and if anything to be the result of consistent small ”hits” to the various parts of system (in this context this would mean different stimuli to the trainee inside and outside of the training hall). And certainly seldom manifests themselves as slowly advancing from disorder to order, as in the mechanistic worldview that biology and psychology in large have moved past, but exercise science in general still succumb to.

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Cycling Rants

2 tickets to the Gun show

For quite some years ago I read an article on the notorious website t-nation.com 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?

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Embracing uncertainty Training theory

Embracing uncertainty pt 4: Micro-dosing

As designing training programs is quite like trying to resolve unsolvable paradoxes it is a hard task. Especially when doing them for groups: groups made up of many different individuals with very different habits. Where someone comes in once every other week, and someone else comes five times per week. Someone is resilient and someone is fragile. Someone is mobile and someone is stiff, etc

The risk of over or under stimulating participants in such a setting is obviously very high.

Still when faced with so many choices with such agonizingly limited information it is very easy to get stuck to the idea of the “best” and “optimal” program, where we would be better off to go for robust flexible one. Such a robust program would be more resilient to unexpected changes, lack of information, uncertainties and changes in training context like the ones we all see working in CrossFit boxes or similar gyms.

Micro-dosing is a technique for studying drugs in humans through the administration of doses so low they are unlikely to produce a dangerous effect, but high enough to allow the response to be studied. This is called a “Phase 0 study” and is usually conducted in between animal testing and full out testing on humans. 

The idea of micro-dosing for sports training I first saw in a blog post from sprint coach Derek Hansen. He proposed to do 15-20 minutes of work every day to accumulate the work you need, rather than working for one hour, two to three times per week. The accumulation of work on a daily basis allows athletes to never get to far away from the skills being trained. And the combination of high-intensity (at or near maximal output) and low volume provides the necessary stimulus for improvement and, at the very least, the maintenance of these qualities without creating excessive fatigue and an environment for injury. 

This makes a lot of sense, if accepting like evidence suggest, that strength training also is governed by the the principles of diminishing return. And that this law kicks in sooner than we usually think. Multiple sets are only associated with 40% greater hypertrophy and strength-related effect-sizes than 1 set, in both trained and untrained subjects. This supports the rationale that it would be better to stimulate a little, than risking no stimuli for a quality for persons in our group classes.

The research I see quoted is more often about where the optimal amount of dose/response would be situated than how little we can get away with doing. And the law of diminishing return is more often used as a tool to warn for over-training rather than to provide support and buy-in for that a little provides most of the benefits to training. 

Harry Markowitz was awarded the Nobel prize in economics in 1990 for his work in predictive economics. It can be seen as an irony that Markowitz, arguably the father of modern portfolio theory, answered the question how he manages his own funds by stating: ”My intention was to minimize my future regret. So I split my contributions fifty-fifty between bonds and equities.” 

There is more downside in missing to stimulate a quality, than to stimulate it to an optimal level. And with short, frequent and intense hits we can fit a lot of different qualities into every session or couple of sessions on a rotational basis. 

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Embracing uncertainty Training theory

Embracing uncertainty pt 3: The explicit versus the implicit

Apart from increasing learning and performance group training has many other benefits that work to keep members coming back for the next training session such as enhanced motivation, accountability, fun and support.

It would be wrong to think it’s only the coach that influence the behavior and the coping strategies that are used when facing obstacles in sports. When unsolicited behavior of others (both verbal and non-verbal) influence the stress and coping process situations we are shown to be more likely to appraise the situation as a challenge than a threat, and to use more adaptive problem-coping strategies (and less likely to fall back on avoidance strategies).

And anyway: there is a large risk for experts to miss what should be apparent to them. Some studies have even shown experts to be even less likely than non-experts to predict the future of their area of expertise, all while being way more certain of their correctness. Displaying a vast amount of ways to justify predictive errors as ”I was nearly right” or ”I would have been right if no X would have happened” which in turn makes them less prone to realize their errors than their less credible counterparts.

In psychologist Philip Tetlock’s gigantic study of experts predictive ability the experts performed worse than they would have if they had simply assigned an equal probability to outcomes. In Tetlock’s words the experts were poorer forecasters than dart-throwing monkeys – who would have distributed their picks evenly over the possible choices. To have an reputation to uphold can make experts so invested in a line of thought that they rationalize information in ways to protect their egos…

There are experts who do not fall as frequently into this pitfall, and according to Tetlock they tend to think more like ”foxes” than ”hedgehogs”, not using one big trick to solve every problem. Those were the ones who focused on the uniqueness of a situation, who saw how it differed from other – as compared to the hedgehogs who tended to use the same set of procedures and protocols to every problem.

Abraham Kaplan in his famous quote stated that the small boy who are given only a hammer “will find that everything he encounters needs pounding”, and unfortunately that seems to hold true for grown up experts as well. We need to make decisions, but should remember to always stay light on our feet and to keep an eye out for trouble – especially when we feel very confident.

So for our group training programs it seems a good idea to construct processes to protect from downside, including making sure there are other people (community) around both us and our members.

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CrossFit Embracing uncertainty Training theory

Embracing uncertainty pt 2: The built-in benefits of CrossFit

When learning movement there must be room for self-organization of the motor patterns forming this movement. Otherwise we would only learn how to perform a very specific movement in a very set environment. Variation serves the important purpose of managing fatigue levels and to increase motivation, but also for learning flexible patterns allowing us for solving task specific movement.

It has been shown to improve the rate of learning of skills to have either a non-systematic (random) or a non-consecutive order (serial) order of execution of skills compared to the more perfect organization of practice that a blocked practice provides.

Over-prescriptive coaching may be detrimental to learning. Everyone will have their personal “best solution”, which while looking somewhat general, still must be constructed on the resources of the specific individual. And this individual solution will emerge and stabilize more quickly if we disregard the urge to try to force the process. What coaches should do is to use their understanding of how to manipulate movement constrictions and key factors that underpin performance to provide understanding on what a successful outcome would be. To use their trained eye to help shape the learners performances through guided discovery and self-exploration. Not overly telling “how to do it” but “what to do” in a movement that seems likely to learn. And then – and this might be the hardest thing to do for us coaches – to back off in order for learning to happen.

It has also been shown that practice in dyads, as compared to individual practice, can enhance motor learning and increase the efficiency of practice

Knowing this, one can clearly see how facilitated group training, with an knowledgeable coach in control of the practice setup and individual movement constraints together with a group of individuals, operating in a culture that allows for exploring those movements in a non-perfect fashion could be quite successful at skill acquisition.

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Embracing uncertainty Training theory

Embracing uncertainty pt 1: Exercise is the polypill

“Combination pharmacotherapy offers the potential to decrease the incidence of cardiovascular disease worldwide, perhaps especially in people who have never had a cardiovascular event,” concluded the Combination Pharmacotherapy and Public Health Research Working Group, convened by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States.

The report, which was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in October 2005, came up with the finding that combining several anti-hypertensive drugs (usually aspirin, a statin and blood-pressure lowering drugs) at low doses is likely to be more effective and have fewer side-effects than high-dose therapy with a single drug. This ”polypill” is then supposed to be administered to large populations as a prevention for cardiovascular disease.

Similar if not overall higher benefits are achievable with regular exercise, a drug-free intervention for which our genome has been shaped over evolution. Exercise has been shown to affect risk and treat such a multitude of chronic diseases such as metabolic syndrome-related disorders, cardiovascular diseases, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. And, unlike the idea of the medical polypill, with a low cost and practically no adverse effects.

Just perceiving yourself as someone that have an active life style in itself seem to matter in order to increase health. Therefore the most important thing we do is probably accommodating for individuality when dealing with our members and designing their training program as an agile training process.

”The training you do is the only training that matters”. To some degree this is true but it is not only through the traditional physiological pathways commonly referenced in training interventions.  One other way training seems to work is to change the perception of oneself  which in turn has been shown to affect coping strategies and motivation.

In a study containing samples from over 60.000 US adults, with follow up periods of 21 years it was found that the physical activity relative to peers was associated with mortality risk. Individuals that perceived themselves as less active than others were up to 71% more likely to die in the follow-up period than those who perceived themselves as more active. This after adjusting for actual levels of physical activity and other covariates.

In another study 84 hotel cleaners where divided into groups that was either informed or a control group. The informed group where told that what they were doing at work was exercise and how many calories different work activities they performed together. That what they was already doing was exceeding the general recommendations of 30 minutes of exercise every day. In short: that they we’re doing good, that they already were people that did exercise. 30 days later – despite reporting not having changed exercise outside of work – the informed group had improved different health markers as weight, BMI, body fat %, waist to hip ratio and blood pressure.

Also, there is the ‘Training-Injury Prevention Paradox’: a phenomenon whereby athletes accustomed to high training loads have fewer injuries than athletes training at lower workloads. Physically hard, but appropriate, training loads may protect against injuries.

If we accept that training is exerting a multitude of positive effects not only on physical health but also reducing stress and improving mental health then that strengthens the doctrine that the most important thing for every single session for us trainers is that we try to make people come back for the next.