Leon Fleisher died recently. Man, what a life! Born in San Francisco in 1928 to Jewish immigrants, he started playing the piano at age four, and by nine he was proficient enough to become a student of renowned teacher Artur Schnabel. At 16, Fleisher made his Carnegie Hall debut, and by his mid-20s he was widely considered one of the greatest pianists in the world, if not the very best.
Then, at 36, Fleisher mysteriously lost the use of his right hand. That would be a lot for anyone to deal with, but for him it was cruelly devastating. Yet Fleisher persevered through the affliction with admirable resilience and adaptability. Predictably, he shifted some of his energies into teaching and conducting, but he also continued to play the piano, albeit one-handed. In interviews he often suggested that losing the use of his right hand expanded his creativity and forced him to think more deeply about music, saying in one interview, “Limitations are the food of the creator” (a line he attributed to the great German writer Johann von Goethe, though I’ve found no evidence he actually said it).
My refamiliarization with Fleisher’s story was timely. The day he died, I took part in a “Fireside Chat” on Zoom that was hosted by the online running club Endeavorun and featured elite miler Kyle Merber as guest speaker. Among the things Kyle talked about was how he’s adapted his training and overall approach to running in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He told us he’s been experimenting with higher mileage, and the results have been so positive that he fully intends to continue running more than he used to even after things get back to normal. Kyle also said that training with less structure has given him the freedom to force things less than he used to do when he trained with teammates under a coach’s eye every day—for example, easing into hard intervals on the track rather than pushing to keep up with whoever had the best legs on a given day—and he hopes to be able to carry this adjustment forward as well.
In this analogy, the pandemic is the equivalent of Fleisher’s paralysis and Kyle’s training innovations are the equivalent of Fleisher’s becoming a brilliant left-handed pianist and learning to think more deeply about music. And Fleisher is hardly alone in his Fleisher-like response to the Coronavirus crisis. In fact, pretty much every elite endurance athlete and coach resilient and intelligent enough to meet the challenge has done so in similar fashion.
Take Ben Rosario, for example, my friend and coach of Hoka NAZ Elite. Ben has come up with a couple specific ways of adjusting to life without racing opportunities that he intends to continue using with his runners even after the races return. The one I find most interesting has to do with the fact that, for NAZ Elite, being stuck in place has mean being stuck at 7,000 feet of altitude, where it’s tough to do race simulation-type workouts because runners can’t run as fast up there. To make the best of the situation, Ben tested out what he calls “squeeze-down intervals,” where instead of trying to hold a steady, aggressive pace throughout an interval, runners start on the slow side and accelerate in increments. For example, instead of running a 1500-meter interval at 4:15 pace from start to finish, the male runners on the team might run the first 400 meters in 75 seconds, the next in 70, the next in 65, and the final 300 in 45 seconds. Ben tells me that these tests have gone well—so well that he plans to keep squeeze-down intervals in the mix, in part because they happen to do a good job of simulating championship-style racing and in part because they have him feeling less compelled to get out of Flagstaff for certain training stimuli.
When I discussed these matters the other day with my friend Mike, he mentioned the story of the London Underground strike of 2014. Highly disruptive to the millions of Londoners who relied on the tube for their daily commute and other routine activities, the strike turned out to be a blessing in disguise in the sense that it impelled many to find alternative ways to get around town that they ultimately deemed preferable, hence retained after the strike ended. In an academic paper on the phenomenon titled “The Benefits of Forced Experimentation,” a team of economists concluded that “individuals seem to under-experiment during normal times, as a result of which constraints can be welfare-improving.”
In other words, it is human nature to get comfortable with existing routines, even in high-stakes forums like elite running, where the potential competitive benefits of successful experimentation are great. Disruptive events like the current pandemic have a way of forcing the experimentation athletes are reticent to self-initiate. This reality puts us in the odd position of hoping for disruptive events—which, let’s be honest, tend to be more cloud than silver lining—to strike us every now and again.
Or does it? First off, I should note that not all athletes and coaches are equally able to turn crises into opportunities. Nor are all athletes and coaches who are able to turn crises into opportunities equally dependent on external events to trigger innovation. With the right mindset, it’s possible to seek out disruption by self-imposing constraints or placing oneself in an environment or circumstances that will all but necessitate adaptation. One random example is relocating to Kenya for a training stint, something that many pro runners and even some recreational runners have done with great success, a success that comes not despite but because of its necessitation of running on bad roads at high altitude, adopting a very limited (but very healthy) diet, doing without your $1,000 compression boots and a whole lot else, and adjusting to the Kenyan training approach.
If you were to actually do this (as I myself have done), I can guarantee you’d return home a changed runner and eagerly incorporate some of your “Kenyan ways” into your regular routine. And there are a million other ways to force experimentation as an athlete, any of which may yield an improved routine, and all of which will render you better prepared to make the best of the next unchosen disruption.
By the way, Leon Fleisher gradually regained the use of his right hand in the 1990s and died as he’d (virtually) been born: a two-handed pianist.