Tuesday, May 8, 2007

The Elements of Effort

The Elements of Effort
By John Jerome
From Runners World January 1997
A lot of professional writers I know keep a small book called the Elements of Style on a shelf right over their desks. Only 71 pages long, it is a perfect gem of advice on clear composition, and an entertaining read in the bargain. It’s handy to have around.

William Strunk, Jr, a professor of English at Cornell, wrote the original text in 1918, intending “merely to give in a brief space the principle requirements of plain English. EB White was a student f Strunk’s who went on to become the most graceful essayist working, for several decades, in American magazines, mostly at The New Yorker. In 1959 he revised what Will Strunk always called his “little book” added an introduction and had it republished. It has never since gone out of print.

A runner as well as a writer, I've always thought we need a similar basic guide to the principles of athletic training. Ideally it would be expressed not in the TAB-A in SLOT-B manner of most exercise physiology texts, but with a little more sympathy for the reader – a sentiment acquired from Strunk and White. “Will felt that the reader was in serious trouble most of the time, “ said White, “a man floundering in a swamp, and that it was the duty of anyone attempting to write English to drain the swamp quickly and to get his man up on dry ground, or at least throw him a rope.”

In the past 12 years of writing The Complete Runners Day By Day Log And Calendar, I have come across at least a scattering of such principles, some of which are gathered below. They do not represent all one might ever want to know about athletic training, but if your eyes tend to glaze over at discussions of max VO2 – or yet another formula for computing the heart rate range at which the training effect allegedly kicks in – what follows is an attempt to toss you a few of Will Strunk’s handy ropes.

Ø Being an athlete does not necessarily mean being a dumb jock. Athletes are only people trying to get the most out of themselves. That’s a cerebral enterprise if you go at it right, no matter how much muscle it takes.
Ø We are able to run because our bodies manufacture a molecule that features free radicals, and these free radicals – mere plus or minus sighs within the hieroglyphics of chemistry – leap to make new attachments. Which releases energy, which galvanizes muscle. We do this in various complex styles – aerobically and anaerobic ally, by various biochemical pathways – but in the end that’s what happens: differing electrical charges come into contact; a subatomic particle leaps from one molecule to another, pulling a microscopic strand of protein one step forward along another strand; the muscle contacts; we move.
Ø “Who pays attention to the syntax of things will never wholly kiss you,” says poet EE Cummings. It’s a sentiment that springs to mind at the notion of kilojoules counting. Anyone who pays strict attention to kilojoules will never take the weight off, let alone keep it off. A nutritionist at your elbow can't tell within 1000 kilojoules what you’re consuming per day, and that large an error can add 12kg per year. Dieting simply put, is crazy.
Ø One small leap of faith is required to get started in an exercise program, or to resume and interrupted one: you have to believe in the training effect. The training effect is the astonishing physiological principle that says that the organism improves in response to stress. Every athlete has experienced its gentle galvanization. Athletes come to know if they are only steadfast; the training effect will rescue them from torpor and temporary discomfort. Dropouts have to relearn every time.
Ø Aging is a deterioration of connective tissue. The stiffness, shrinkage and drying up of aging occur directly in that great web of fiber that holds us together. What exercise does is resist this stiffening. All these complex physiological processes that we call training come down, at bottom, to maintaining the lively resilience of your connective tissue. Age is what makes it tight; movement is what keeps it loose. If you can’t stay young, stay loose. Your heart will thank you for it.
Ø Easy does it. All exercise, all work for that matter, is a dance with fatigue: manipulation of it, experiment with it and, finally, acceptance of it. What training does is pull its teeth. A manageable level of fatigue can be a useful training tool. It encourages you to relax, lets you seek out the gentlest and most efficient ways to move. Until you’re in shape, those first unpleasant signals of fatigue insist that things are going to deteriorate quickly and you’re going to grind to a halt; once you’re in shape, those same signals only remind you to reestablish homeostasis. Back off until the systems balance up again.
Ø The productive way to think about energy is the transmutation of energy of chemistry into physics. You laugh, cry, read this page, figure out the square root of a number in your head, and draw breath, by processing glucose. It the same resource you use to run 10km. The volume and the rate of processing, and the sites where the processing takes place, may differ, but it’s the same stuff. And it all comes from the same source: what you stick in your gob.
Ø You run up the hill for your heart, down the hill for your legs.
Ø At any given time, you are in shape for what you were doing two weeks ago. There is roughly a 21 day cycle to the training process, and we’re always at day 11. If you begin by jogging around the block every day, in 11 days you’ll have accommodated to that workload (it gets easier), and after 21 days you’ll have got all the training effect that you're going to get out of a one block jog. If you’re driven by the self improvement bug, you then have to increase the workload – run faster or further, or carry more weight. If jogging comfortably around the block is sufficient for your ambitions, you can cruise – maintain in other words- thereafter, and probably enjoy it. The first 11 days of any new cycle may well be uncomfortable, however. The various body parts and systems do resent it when their load is increased, and they let you know. The resentment will fade, but only if you push past it.
Ø Serious athletes don’t get warm, they get “loose”. They play around with moves of their sport until they get comfortable enough, until they reach a shambling, tension free kind of confidence that tells them they’re ready for real effort. They don’t pursue warmth; they pursue bounciness, elasticity, fluidity. The goal is to get the soft tissue pulled out to length, the joints lubricated through their range of motion, the synapses charged. Getting loose reminds the nerves to remind the muscles how to do that next demanding thing. Looseness is also a state of mind, much desired: tight minds make tight muscles, which make not only injuries but also tentative movements, booted plays. Tight minds make bad athletes. Send me in coach, I’m loose.
Ø Athletic technique is always personal. We vary in dimensions and ratios from joint to joint, in angles and leverages of muscular attachment; we move these segments to our own internal rhythms. To the extent we can train the angles and levers to work together better, to the degree the internal rhythms come to fit the physics of the task, we improve. We can only approach perfection, never arrive. When we try to change our form, we tend to work to small; we’re tentative. In athletic motion, what feels like a large correction is usually tiny. Full amplitude feels exaggerated, and we don’t want to appear physical fools. To change your technique, you have to act out, let fly, exaggerate. Once the technique is grooved, you can go back to subtleties.
Ø The body core must be protected from excess heat, and working muscles generate a great deal of heat. Blood circulation, which brings energy supply to those muscles, also helps carry the heat away. When circulation becomes insufficient, we sweat in order to use surface evaporation for more cooling. When sweating becomes insufficient, we have heatstroke, which can quickly become fatal. The more common heat injury is heat exhaustion. That happens when sweating, plus the liquid we blow off in respiration, diminishes the body’s fluids. Some of the liquid loss comes out of the blood. If we don’t replenish fluids by drinking liquids, reduced volume makes the blood thicker, more viscous, and harder to pump. To maintain sufficient blood pressure to the vital organs, superficial circulation shuts down; athletic effort rapidly comes to a halt. Blood to your higher brain centers is also shut down, which means your judgment about continuing – and about getting out of trouble –also rapidly runs out on you. You get stupid.
Ø All these years they’ve been telling you that you are what you eat. That’s wrong. You aren’t what you eat, you are what you do. A lot of runners use the daily energy burn as an excuse for eating everything in sight. Why worry about a bedtime bowl of ice cream when you’re deliberately going out and spending thousands of extra kilojoules a day? This is the sin of volume. There are also runners who shrink in horror from particular poisons (white bread, white sugar, what martinis) and gobble particular magic potions (Vitamin C, Bee pollen, raw things) in search of an edge. This is the sin of pointlessness. You don’t power your muscles with wheat germ or bee dung; you power your muscles by breaking down glycogen into adenosine triphosphate and pyruvic acid. This takes place at the level of carbon and hydrogen and phosphorus, not at the level of kelp or tofu or even French fries.
Ø The definition of addiction keeps getting more confused, as we find more and more things – behaviors as well as substances – that people find they prefer not to do without. It is fairly clear that the body’s cells and their needs can actually be changed by nothing more than long-term, gradually accumulating exposure to an agent of change. Training is an agent of change. So maybe we’re addicted to it. So What? So we’re going to be miserable if we have to stop. Most of us were miserable before we started. That’s why most of us started.
Ø The heart is the tachometer of effort
Ø The leaner you are, the more kilojoules you burn just sitting still, since lean mass has a higher metabolic rate than fat. Exercise is a more powerful kick to the wheel of life than its mere fuel cost can possibly explain. Runners are fond of explaining this usually around a mouthful of spaghetti.
Ø It is dependably amazing how physical performance gets better – more beautiful as well as more productive – as it gets more efficient. Good athletes (and good performing artists) eventually earn to give up force for accuracy, for precision. Getting the physical task right is not only the easiest way, and therefore the most forceful way, but the most beautiful way as well. The truest way – in the carpenter’s sense of straight lines and proper alignments – turns out to be the bets way aesthetically, even philosophically. It is when you attempt to lay something extra on top of pure performance that things start to go out of whack. Ego starts getting in the way of physics.
Ø One good reason for deliberate, careful warm-up is to establish rhythm to your workout. You want t warm up enough to get everything not just moving well but slightly tired, pushed gently into the first fringe of fatigue. You want to burn off the uppermost layer of nervous energy. You stop for a brief rest, until the surge of recovery begins to set in, and then start the hard part of your workout on the crest of that surge. If you don’t, if you attempt to bull your way right on through the first slump of fatigue, your workout gets uncomfortable early on, which is discouraging. The idea is to put in your effort when fatigue ebbs and recover while it is peaking. You rather than your laggardly physical responses are in charge of rhythm. That’s what interval training is really about, although the experts may not present it that way. The idea is to train the recovery processes as well as the energy production processes. Intervals take the level of effort a little further, a little more quickly, than steady state work does – and then ease off a little earlier. Your system learns to recover a little faster, to smooth out the blips. The heart actually pumps more blood during the recovery periods than during the effort itself, so it gets better work done, and achieves more gain, if your workout has built in rest periods. Steady work gently pulls the systems along; intervals push them around aggressively. Trained that way, the system learns to widen the range of their response.
Ø A callus is a thickened patch of skin built up in response to steady wear. Runners get them on the feet, guitar pickers get them on their fingers, and cyclists…wear shorts with chamois inserts. If you have a lot of calluses – or are an insensitive clod – you are called “callous”: hardened, armored, incapable of discriminating subtle feelings. If you aren’t callous enough your in danger of becoming a neurasthenic, hypersensitive to life’s harder lessons and therefore at continual risk. Can’t we find some healthy middle ground somewhere?
Ø Play is work done for pleasure. To the scientists who study such matters, raising a glass of champagne to your lips is work. Kissing your sweetie-pie is work. To distinguish work from more vexatious labor, all we’ve been able to come up with is the unfortunate word “exercise”, which doesn’t begin to capture the excitement and reward that hard use of the human body can give.

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