Haverford College – 80/20 Endurance

Haverford College

I don’t look sick. To the contrary, I look like I could run a marathon, or so I’m told. In fact, though, the last time I tried to run I couldn’t get out of bed the next day. This isn’t a figure of speech—I could not get out of bed the next day. And it wasn’t a marathon that put me on my back. It was a single, 10-minute jog on a treadmill.

The doctors call it post-exertional malaise, and it’s common among folks with chronic fatigue syndrome, as well as for those like me who suffer from post-acute COVID-19 syndrome. So, how is it that a person who can’t jog for 10 minutes without incapacitating himself for 36 hours still manages to maintain the appearance of being fit enough to run a marathon? The answer to this question is worth sharing, I believe, because it delivers a useful general lesson about effective weight management.

Let me start by saying that vanity always ranked low on my list of reasons for training before I was forced to stop several months ago. My wife and I agree that I look best with a little more meat on my bones, and what meat I once had was stripped away when I became a hardcore endorphin junkie in the late 1990s. I trained hard because I enjoyed it and it made me feel good and it taught me a lot about myself and I grew as a person through the process and I derived tremendous satisfaction from chasing improvement and competing, and I didn’t particularly care how training make me look so long as it checked all of those other boxes.

Still, I am human, and all humans are vain to some degree. Hence, when I was forced to stop training and lost its many benefits, I rediscovered the reality that I actually did sort of care about my appearance. In particular, I began to worry about gaining weight. This might sound laughable to those who’ve only ever known me as a beanpole endurance athlete who can wrap the index finger and thumb of his right hand around his left wrist with an inch of overlap between the two digits. But there was a time in my life when I struggled with my weight and lacked the wherewithal to do much about it.

I hit my lifetime peak weight of 206 lbs during my sophomore year in college. All the excess poundage glommed around my middle. Even then I could have worn a woman’s wristwatch, but I carried a sloppy old beer gut bookended by stretchmark-festooned love handles, the sight of which disgusted me. I remember arriving at the Haverford College dining center one morning determined to break the dietary habits—salad avoidance, second helpings, keg party attendance—that had added 68 pounds to my former runner’s body in the span of 18 months. But upon entering the cafeteria I discovered it was omelet day, game over. The cheese-heavy three-egger I requested tasted quite scrumptious, but I didn’t enjoy it, burdened as I was by the realization that I lacked the willpower to do what was necessary to lose weight and that I would always be fat.

This pessimistic outlook on my body’s future was based in part on the assumption that I would never run again. When I did get back into running a few years later, the weight came off very easily. What’s more, my desire to improve as an athlete motivated me to make better food choices in a way that my desire to look good naked hadn’t, and I cleaned up my diet quite a bit. Still, the large volume of exercise I did routinely allowed (and in fact required) me to eat a lot, and I worried about what would happen if a major injury or other setback forced me out of training for an extended period of time. I believed that, even if I continued to choose healthy foods, I wouldn’t be able to muster the restraint necessary to reduce my intake sufficiently to avoid gaining weight.

I should have known better, and in fact I did. Both scientific and real-world evidence indicate that weight management is easier overall at lower volumes of exercise. Sure enough, when I stopped running, my appetite decreased significantly, making reduced food intake almost as easy as listening to my body. Currently I weigh 148 pounds, or 2 pounds less than I did when I stopped running.

Eating less isn’t the only reason I haven’t put on a spare tire, though. In fearing weight gain, I underestimated the power of high diet quality in managing a stable body weight. In my beer-belly days I was living on bagels and pizza (and beer), but my current diet, which features a balance of unprocessed foods, fills me up with far fewer calories. What’s more, the practice in dietary self-discipline I got from bumping up my diet quality has proven to be more transferable to regulating overall food intake than I expected. Whereas when I was still running I truly ate as much as I wanted, I now put up with a little more unsatisfied craving than before (and all the more so since I was placed on a medication that increases appetite as a side effect), and it’s not a problem.

Many years ago I created a set of integrated training and diet plans for endurance athletes seeking to improve their body composition. These short (four- to eight-week) programs were designed to help people shed a bit of excess body fat relatively quickly outside the context of race-focused training cycles, when fitness and performance are the priority and any improvement in body composition that occurs during the process is incidental. The specific methodology that made up the substance of these plans was based on a combination of mainstream science and real-world best practices. I never actually followed one of them myself for the simple reason that my weight never varied much, but ironically the formula for holding steady on the bathroom scale that I’ve defaulted to in response to my current health situation looks a lot like my old Racing Weight programs.

For example, these programs were heavy on strength training, which facilitates body composition improvement by increasing basal metabolism. Lucky for me, even in my present decrepitude I am able to tolerate a decent amount of strength training, perhaps because, unlike aerobic experience, it is discontinuous in nature. I lift weights for about 20 minutes every day, and doing so has contributed considerably to my successful weigh management. Seeing this effect has also confirmed for me that I was not doling out bad advice to my fellow athletes through my Racing Weight plans.

Inspired by this experience, I’ve created a new set of online Racing Weight plans for runners and triathletes. Six weeks in length, these plans come in four levels for each sport. You can learn more about the training component here and the dietary component here, and you can preview them here. To be clear, these are not “beach body” programs. They are practical, scientifically informed programs for performance weight management intended for use by athletes who care more about how they feel and function than about how they look. God forbid you should ever have to rely on one to merely look like you could run a marathon when in fact you can barely climb a flight of stairs!

Wisdom is the principle thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting, get understanding.–Proverbs 4:7

The best teacher I ever had was Mark Gould, a sociology professor at Haverford College. I’ll never forget the first meeting of his Foundations of Social Theory class in the fall of 1989. The bearded professor (whose sundry idiosyncrasies included wearing a dog leash as a belt) leapt straight into a group exercise in which he presented a hypothetical scenario of a man throwing a rock through the window of a parked car and then invited us, his bright-eyed, barely-adult students, to imagine why this event had occurred.

Someone raised a hand and proposed that the stone hurler was a criminal who stole car stereos to finance a drug habit. Another student said he was a teen hooligan causing mischief. Still another said he was a good Samaritan rescuing a dog trapped inside the vehicle on a hot summer day. Yet another said he was an embittered jilted lover lashing out at an ex. And so on.

As each volunteer offered their take, Gould wrote down a word or two on a whiteboard: “utilitarian theft,” “vandalism,” “altruism,” “revenge,” etcetera. After collecting about a dozen different scenarios, the teacher put down his marker and announced to us that we, his fresh-faced pupils, did not know how to think, not through any fault of our own but simply because we had never been taught how to think, and that his primary goal for the coming semester was to teach us how to think.

I don’t remember how much I took away from that first lesson, but it was more than nothing. For me, the process of learning to think had begun, a process that would continue over the next five years as I took other courses with Gould (including one audited post-graduation) and was mentored by him outside the classroom as well, mainly over deli sandwiches. The difference between thinking critically, as this great mind-molder taught me how to do, and thinking in the lower-primate way I had before, is roughly analogous to the difference between information and understanding. Information is knowing. Understanding is knowing what to do with what you know, particularly in the absence of complete information. A man throwing a rock through a car window is information. Having the sense to pass no judgment and take no action until the why is revealed—recognizing, in other words, that not all rocks thrown through car windows are the same—is understanding.

Information is easy. Understanding is hard. I think that’s why, of the roughly two dozen students who attended that first Foundations of Social Theory class session in the autumn of 1989, only eight returned for the second meeting, which took place in the shabby snuggery of Gould’s living room. The life of a human being can be seen as a series of decisions. Information makes decisions easier, and indeed when complete information is available, our decisions are effectively made for us. This is precisely what is meant by the term “no-brainer.” But in many fields of endeavor, including endurance training, decisions must be made routinely with incomplete information, and understanding makes this possible by empowering creative problem solving. If you’ve ever dealt with someone who seems unfazed by uncertainty in the face of a pressing decision, you’ve dealt with a person who knows how to think and not merely how to assimilate information.

As an endurance coach and writer, I try to pay Mark Gould’s gift forward by teaching athletes how to understand the training process. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day,” goes the old maxim. “Teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” Allow me to give you a concrete example of the difference between the two that is relevant to your interests as an endurance athlete.

Recently two writers penned articles about the book Out of Thin Air: Running Wisdom and Magic from Above the Clouds in Ethiopia, which documents the 15 months that Scottish anthropologist and runner Michael Crawley spent experiencing and absorbing Ethiopia’s elite running culture. One article is titled “8 ways to train like an Ethiopian distance runner,” and it describes (you guessed it) eight distinctive features of Ethiopian-style run training. This article is almost entirely devoid of contextualization or an analysis. Are the methods are necessary or optional? More effective or less effective than what the reader might be doing currently? By what criteria should a runner choose from among them? The article does not answer these questions, nor even hint that they might be worth asking. Little more than an annotated list—thoroughly SEO vetted, I’m sure—it is pure information. A hunk of fish.

The other recent article on the same topic couldn’t be more different. It begins by explaining the idea that there are certain methods every runner must practice to realize their full potential in the sport, yet within this framework of unbreakable rules, there is plenty of latitude to train in different ways based on personal preferences, cultural norms, and so forth. In support of this contention, the writer adduces scientific evidence that there is indeed more than one way to skin a cat in endurance training.

The article then goes on to describe three of the specific features of Ethiopian-style run training described in Crawley’s book that appear to be radically different from what most non-Ethiopian runners are accustomed to. But on closer inspection, the writer reveals, all of these practices turn out to be entirely consistent with core, universal principles of optimal endurance training. They are different only superficially, in the way that injera (a traditional Ethiopian bread made out of teff) is different from oatmeal, a nutritionally identical food eaten in other places where injera is probably considered “weird” by a lot of folks.

This second article does not merely present information about Ethiopian-style run training. It equips readers with a way of thinking about the training process that they can use in the future to conduct their own analyses of any other novel training methods they might encounter. It is, in short, a lesson in how to fish.

I think it’s a safe bet that the Runner’s World article got many more views than my article. But I’d like to think that perhaps mine made a deeper impact on the readers it did reach. There’s nothing wrong with providing information, but as valuable as this service is, it just doesn’t excite me. I much prefer the more challenging task of trying to help athletes better understand training (and nutrition, and mental fitness development . . .).

Sometimes I wonder how Mark Gould felt about the attrition that occurred between the first and second meetings of his Foundations of Social Theory class. I know he took great satisfaction in tinkering with willing young brains like mine. But did he also feel a little sad about the far greater numbers of students who weren’t interested in what he offered? I’ll admit, I feel a little sad on occasion in my own job—lonely even. How about you—are you one of the sixteen, or one of my eight?

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