Training & Philosophy: What can philosophy add to the discussion on athletic performance?
Exercise physiology is a general science of the effects of exercise and the body's response to it. Most training theories and concepts we use today come from a physiological 'standpoint'. When I do clinic talks, I usually get asked questions like these - Will increasing my mileage improve my performance?, Is base training better than high intensity training?, how do I teach my body to run faster?, and how do I improve my running economy? Often, these discussions with other runners/triathletes center on understanding the physiological constraints of performance in hope of finding a magic training method to overcome them. The cardiovascular or physiological model is not incorrect, it is how we use this model in our daily practices, often focused on performance and maximizing it in a narrow and linear viewpoint:
UNDERSTAND THE PHYSIOLOGICAL CONSTRAINTS + MODERN TRAINING METHODS & TECHNIQUES = MAXIMUM PERFORMANCE
Sounds simple. In laboratory this rational equation works as it forms the basis of empirical research: “Theory” + “Training Intervention” = “Effect on Specified Performance”. But a problem with this way of thinking is that is based on a singular cause-and-effect relationship (e.g. A + B = C) that has not been scientifically proven in laboratory settings to be able to offer a 'gold standard' training program, let alone in real life experiences, when training is balanced with family and work. Problematically, when this equation fails us (i.e.: our performance did not increase with "precise" training), we often lose trust in our bodies and ourselves. Another common discussion I have is: I've lost my motivation. I don't know what happened; my training was going so well?
It is important to understand our bodies but we shouldn't relate to our bodies as if they are “biological machines”. Effective training is learned through trial and error, and encompasses our experience and knowledge, not just a model or theory.Most knowledge in any discipline is helpful only in specific contexts, so we must be careful when we talk about the "practical use" of physiological knowledge. Exercise physiology as a field is helpful in understanding the body's response to exercise, but the variables influencing performance are not easily controlled in real life. Performance is a complex phenomenon. The irony of training in predictable linearity is that our lives are rarely lived out that way!
Philosophers are interested in general human experiences ~ love, knowledge and happiness. As a runner, my interest is in “performance”. I review the physiological science on training and performance (and other related areas such as sport psychology and biomechanics) because I want to understand these theories, and like most runners I want to get faster, but I am not a physiologist! So what then can 'philosophy' tell us about running? Can it answer questions about performance? I would argue YES, philosophy can tell us about running but we would ask ourselves different questions and create different meanings (answers) and live our training differently. Philosophy has always been interested in understanding human experience, and running is a human experience.
A question that has come to me over the years is “how do we maintain trust in ourselves to persist in our training and racing, and how do we avoid succumbing to these preconceptions, seeing our bodies as limiting instead of capable? If we take physical literacy seriously, physical activity should be seen as an end in itself rather than a means to other ends. This is grounded on the philosophical support from existentialists and phenomenologists who give unequivocal support for the centrality of our embodied dimension in life as we know it.
Training vs. Experience: Being mindful of our training
We often simplify experiences to try and understand them or debate the importance of them - would you rather have money or love?, is family more important than career? is strict adherence to drills more important than having fun in training? These simplified dichotomies are perceived as either/or’s, but one way of seeing the world is to realize that everything is “both/and”. One debate that exists in the running community is "do you want a coach with knowledge of training theories or experience with successfully coaching athletes?" The answer should be both!
Definition of TRAINING: 1 a : the act, process, or method of one that trains; b : the skill, knowledge, or experience acquired by one that trains; 2: the state of being trained. TRAIN: 1: a : to form by instruction, discipline, or drill ; b : to make prepared (as by exercise) for a test of skill.
Definition of EXPERIENCE: 1: a : the conscious events that make up an individual life; b : the events that make up the conscious past of a community or nation or humankind generally; 2: something personally encountered, undergone, or lived through; 3: the act or process of directly perceiving events or reality.
Training and experience are not different things, indeed their definitions depend on one another: when we are training, we are gaining experience, and as we gain more knowledge, our training becomes more skilled and mindful. Being mindful is simply being aware of our individual “philosophy”, seeing training as an experience and being aware of our thoughts, feelings, emotions, movements, actions, bodies, and others.
How can Philosophy help us be mindful in our training?
Philosophy is a skill (but avoid only relying on common sense). Philosophy includes both critical thinking skills and reasoning abilities, and though I've been trained in the history of philosophy and its conceptual ideas, where I think philosophy is most useful is the former notion. I wish to encourage good reasoning in the context of popular training concepts, and one of the skills that philosophy seems to emphasize most is the ability to reason critically. Like running, critical thinking is a skill learned through living it. Sounds difficult, but we actually do this every day of our lives, on a conscious and NOUMENA level. At any moment in life where you have to make a decision about something, that decision will always depend on your reasoning abilities. In this way, being a good thinker can help you become a better runner and consumer of information, a better writer, reader and communicator, a better role model, leader and follower, and a better friend to others. Most importantly, our interpretation of the facts, and whether or not these have value to us, is our undertaking to become more mindful of our training philosophy.
A training philosophy that is well thought through clarifies many aspects of your performance goals – it provides a consistent and positive message to yourself. One of the strongest benefits arising from a consistent and sincere approach to training is trust. I train by heart rate and the traditional physiological “cardiovascular” model because it is meaningful to me, as you will see in my training stories; it gives me a picture of my training and my body that I can understand, and it is an idea I can trust. But I am also interested in the broader meaning of "Why do I run? What value does running have in my life? In the lives of others? My goal is to provide information that is both from the science of exercise and my personal experience in order to increase our physical literacy as a community, increasing the confidence in our abilities and competence in our movements.
The following "training stories" are an in-depth interpretation of the meaning of running, where I openly discuss the research, science, theories and models of training through my experiences. The result is a story of training, which hopefully captures the art and aesthetics of running performance. I run because I want to understand myself and others. There is little worth in only talking about training without talking about the person doing the training – often books on training discuss the body of a runner as a cardiovascular machine, establishing predictable and measurable responses to exercise in progressive training programs. The science of running often conceals the human beingness of a runner: I am starting with the beingness of a runner, changing how the story of training is told, putting my personal experiences and my interpretations of the experiences of others together with the science of running.