Why strength coaches don’t know endurance training- Domain Expertise, Chronic Cardio, and Confirmation Bias – Science of Running

Interview with Tony Holler – Science of Running


Why do smart people believe dumb things?

No, I’m not talking about some intelligent person believing in some crazy conspiracy theory or seemingly irrational belief, I’m talking about really smart people talking about things that are just a side step away from their area of expertise.

I listen to a decent number of podcasts, try to be as well read as possible on a number of subjects, and generally like to hear what “smart” people are thinking and discussing. If for no other reason, that the process of success translates regardless of whether it’s in athletics, academics, or life. And it astounds me how many really successful people at their domain are utterly clueless, but very confident about it, in another domain.

How can I be so brash to declare that they are clueless? Well I technically can’t, but it’s because they are talking about my domain: endurance. And whether I have a clue or not is debatable, but it’s still my domain of “expertise” and I feel good about understanding it and applying it better than most people who don’t live in this domain. Perhaps because I’m entrenched in this world of endurance, it could be argued that I’m blind to innovation and rely on traditional dogma, as will be certainly argued by non-endurance believers, but I like to think my track record is at least somewhat established in challenging dogmas (shoes, stretching, etc.) in the endurance world.

What I’m talking about is when non-endurance folks talk about endurance. It could be the health benefits of it, how to train for it, or some similar topic. But I’ve heard some incredibly bad arguments by some really smart people on this topic, and boy are they confident about it!

We can look no further than the “chronic cardio” crowd who think that all of life’s problems are caused by excessive “cardio” (whatever the hell that is…pet peeve-it’s a useless term…). Briefly, the chronic cardio crowd claims that excessive cardio leads to horrible health issues. You can choose your topic on what negative consequence it causes, from stress to inflammation to ruined knees to the mother ship of them all: death. The point is, I’ve read or listened to seemingly smart people talk about how bad running is for you. ‘Expert’ trainers, doctors, tech guru’s, marketers, longevity guru’s, you name it. It was the in vogue thing to do.

It’s a simple pattern, make some big polarizing claim(cardio kills), throw in a bit of sciency sounding stuff and perhaps cite a research study or two, and with enough enthusiasm and you have a flock of willing folks spreading your message. For instance, in the anti-endurance world, they’ll throw around this idea that cortisol levels are increased with chronic cardio and a ton of oxidative stress occurs, so you age way faster! It sounds lovely, until you realize that ACUTELY almost any exercise causes such effects, and they aren’t bad. But that’s another point…

So, when I hear these arguments, two questions arise from me:
1. How did they get these viewpoints when the rest of the endurance world has the opposite consensus?

  1. Does my confidence in the endurance world spill over into topics I think I know about but really don’t? Essentially, do I do this?

In particular, I want to use strength coaches as a backdrop for this evaluation. In reality we could be talking about a Sports Medicine Doctor talking about nutrition. Or your latest paleo guru talking about cardio training. It doesn’t matter. What I’m concerned with is NOT proving these claims wrong, but instead, how do smart people get to seemingly dumb, anti-norm, based beliefs.

This isn’t a blog about hating on strength coaches. I know there are tons of great ones, who know more than me on numerous subjects. In fact, I got the pleasure of chatting with a number of great ones up at the Seattle Sounders Winter Antifragile seminar.

Instead, I want to use our “generic” strength coach as a way to look at a much bigger problem. So my apologies to strength coaches, don’t take it personally, if you are reading this blog, chances are I’m not talking about you.

Strength Coaches
Our first strength coach was a nice guy with a football background who was willing to learn. He even read through my grad school thesis, which showed some nice dedication towards understanding something that didn’t come as an area of natural expertise.

But after that, in our college setting, I took over as our team strength coach for a simple reason. I didn’t want to have to teach someone about the demands of our sport, when I could simply control what we did myself. It wasn’t an ego thing, it was a care thing. Whoever we get in the weight room most likely hates being assigned to our sport. Why? Because they were primarily brought in for another sport and gets thrown Cross-Country as a filler. That’s the reality of most college athletic programs. If it wasn’t, then college XC coaches would have a chance to interview new strength coaches like other sports do, but I can assure you that rarely happens. We get the leftovers.

And the funny thing is this…

Often times, our strength coach who knows just enough to be dangerous, (after all they are a conditioning expert too) are extremely confident in their viewpoint of how to train endurance athletes. Often the conversation revolves around the best way to improve VO2max (as if that mattered the most…) was through high intensity interval training, and we are wasting our time doing much endurance work. For the well intentioned one, studies will be cited over and over to demonstrate the value of their approach.

And then once the endurance coach and the strength coach leave the conversation, nobody changes their worldview. The endurance coach thinks the strength coach just doesn’t get it and the strength coach thinks the endurance coach is behind in the times and too stuck in his ways to change to the new modern method of training.

So how do we get here?

Evolution of Knowledge:

In Nassim Taleb’s book Antifragile, one of his central explorations is understanding how knowledge eventually makes its way to applied practice. The traditional viewpoint is that theory developed primarily in the Academic world eventually gets researched and translated into applied practice.

On the other hand, we have what Taleb refers to as “tinkering” knowledge, where through trial and error practitioners refine their practice tactics through an evolution like process. While both methods of applied practice acquisition play a role, Taleb’s argument was that we are biased towards focusing on the Academic route and away from the non-measurable. Or as he put it “No, we don’t put theories into practice. We create theories out of practice.”

The concept was that we have two ways of developing knowledge. One that occurs through an academia route. That is the way we learn in school that we are all familiar with. The other way is more experience based, trial and error, intuitive learning. In other words a way of learning that is more difficult to assess and measure.

And this simple concept to me explains the differences between strength coaches and endurance coaches.

You see, endurance coaches generally develop a base of knowledge through natural mechanisms. The vast majority either performed the particular sport or a variation of it, or if they did not followed some mentor coach who taught them through informal observation and trial. They initially, and probably informally, developed a knowledge for how the sport worked through participation and experience. This explains the phenomenon of coaches initially coaching how they were trained in high school or college. If we don’t progress beyond this it’s a problem.

But what this experience often does is creates this base of how things are done. We then adjust, subtract, add, or change our training philosophies off of this foundation of support. Often times, we then go branch out and look into the sciences to find justification for why things are done this way, or to help further refine our process. In essence, what happens is that, as Taleb pointed out, we are trying to create theories for the why’s based on practice. We use the science to explain and refine, not necessarily develop.

On the other hand, our strength coach probably never grew up running, cycling, or swimming and interests most likely lied in some explosive or powerful sport. After all, that’s how most find themselves going down this path towards strength coach. So they might have a great experiential knowledge of developing strength from their sporting or lifting days, but the experential learning from an endurance standpoint is lacking. If they come up the football route, there exposure to endurance training is likely tied towards punishment (run some laps!) or no-pain no gain conditioning (hill repeats for conditioning!). So many start with a bias against traditional endurance training because it was tied in with punishment and was something that they weren’t particular good at or fond of, so it wasn’t enjoyable.

Instead, the first time they reached the need to really learn about the concept of developing endurance or even work capacity in that direction was through schooling or the traditional academic knowledge route. They might have been exposed to the concept of VO2max in a kinesiology class or while studying for their ACSM personal training exams. While learning about concepts of VO2max and training at percentages of it, as well as lactate thresholds, heart rate zones, and similar concepts, this in turn becomes their foundation for how they understand endurance.

They start to understand training through this model. Whether it’s longer slower work or interval training, it becomes about hitting certain zones or eliciting some physiological workload. In other words, they establish a framework that is different from that of the endurance coach. It’s the academic learned knowledge base.

Secondly, they see the workload through the lens of their preferred modality. In most cases, this is through the training view of something like lifting or sprinting. So what we have a tendency to do is to come at the information from our own world view. So a sprint coach looking at endurance training would fit the workout classifications into things like speed endurance 1 & 2, intensive and extensive tempo, and so forth. They’d take the concepts and plug them into that.

Similarly, when looking at weights, we’re likely to relate track workouts or endurance work back to something that we can make sense of. So if we have 3 sets of 8 reps at 70% max squats, then we will likely be taken by an explanation that says do 5x 800 at 95%VO2max or at 90% max HR, because of the similarities then to do 800s at something like 3k pace, which gives us no known comparison point.

If you don’t believe me, try this thought experiment. Choose one of your runners, and think about their PR’s, let’s say a 15min 5k runner. Now ask yourself roughly what pace you’d have them run at for a long run, tempo run, mile reps, etc.  Pretty easy, right?  Now think about writing a training program for someone running a 35min 5k, without looking up pacing categories on mcmillan or similar, try the same experiment.  If you aren’t used to writing training in that range, it’s a heck of a lot more difficult! We can’t relate and connect it as well as you can for runners who race in a range that is familiar to you. The same thing occurred to me once I first started coaching women. The natural pace guidelines didn’t come instinctual to me and I had to calculate splits and paces, while with guys it came as second nature. The same phenomenon occurs with those outside of the world of endurance coaching, only to another extreme.

The point is that the paradigm from which we get our foundational knowledge is different. And that influences how we see the world of strength, endurance, or whatever it is.

Confirmation Bias-
Why do “meatheads” love the concept of chronic cardio? Because it’s a confirmation bias. It gives them a rationale to hate something they already hate. It confirms their wants, desires, and beliefs, so they jump in it hung ho. The reality is that these same guys would hate “cardio” regardless of if they had justification or not, but they are primed to recognize and see things that confirm their own beliefs.

It’s the same reason why you get people who jump on the “too much running leads to death” ideas that were so eloquently taken down by Alex Hutchinson.  Let me ask you a question, how many people like to run a lot?

I assure you, in the grand scheme of things, very little. Just the kind of people who read this blog.

So for the vast majority of the world, they attach to ‘running is bad’ because they simply don’t want to do it. It, once again, provides a rationalization for them to not do what they already don’t want to do.

For instance, in college we had team tv show night where all the team would get together and watch  The Hills. Yes, the crappy pseudo-reality tv show. We called it turn your brain off time, as the only way you could get through it was if you turned your brain off and just let yourself go. Well, this was huge for our team because it allowed mental recovery from the stress we faced of running 100mpw on top of stressful school situations. It was our mental recharge time. We recharged our willpower and self control. Add in the ridiculousness of it all and we decreased our cortisol levels that accompanied the laughing and socializing. The laughing caused a stir of feel good chemicals an hormones like dopamine and opioids, along with a hit of growth hormone. So we are not only feeling good, but also recovering!The socializing has been shown to flip the ratio of testosterone to cortisol so we were putting our body in a better anabolic to catabolic state, or in essence helping our recovery. Because we “turned our brains off” we were actually just going into instinctual mode relying on the more ancient part of our brain, the limbic system, and giving our deeper thinking/processing part of the brain a rest from being tormented all day with academics and athletics.

Socializing has been shown to flip the ratio of testosterone to cortisol so we were putting our body in a better anabolic to catabolic state, or in essence helping our recovery. Because we “turned our brains off” we were actually just going into instinctual mode relying on the more ancient part of our brain, the limbic system, and giving our deeper thinking/processing part of the brain a rest from being tormented all day with academics and athletics.

All of this combined meant that the greatest recovery we could do, both mentally and physically, after our monday hard workout was to watch The Hills….The only problem is…

I made all of that up…

Okay…not all of it. We actually did have team Hills nights sadly (or awesomely?), and some of those chemical reactions do happen to a degree. But put altogether it’s a bunch of BS. The point is the story sounded okay, there was some science in it, and it gave me justification for pushing my college bed time slightly past 10pm. It was recovery!

In conversations with friends, I’ve said this a million times, that I could make up some sort of scientific sounding rationalization for almost any behavior I have. Just add some sciency sounding words together in a somewhat coherent model and boom, we have a theory to justify behavior. In fact there is research that shows that adding “neuroscience” concepts and explanations leads people to believe it more so.

That’s what this is all about. Justification.

We like nice neat little stories put together in our head. So we justify our behavior, because it is WAY easier to justify a particular behavior then to admit that the years spent learning information to the counter was wasted. We don’t like things that upset our world view. And if we came up through the “strength coaches way of understanding endurance” then we are bound to have our world view upset when encountered by more traditional methods of endurance training.

It feels really bad giving up all of those years of learning. Who wants to admit that reading all of those textbooks and paying all that money for a certification or a college course that taught us “wrong” items.

So it’s a matter of cognitive ease. We have a hard time giving up things that we invested a lot of time in. So, instead we don’t give them up. Even if they are wrong.

So What?

Of course, as endurance coaches, we also have a proclivity to look at strength training through an endurance lens, so we can be guilty of our own bias too! And that’s the point. It’s not that strength coaches just don’t ‘get’ distance running. It’s that they see it through a different world view because of the evolution of their knowledge. It’s not entirely their fault. Just as it’s not entirely our fault that we see strength training through an endurance lens.

In fact, if used productively, it can be a welcome respite from the dogmatic worldview of your own domain. When we aren’t stuck in the domain it allows for seeing things in a new light. The key though, is to know the limits of this approach.  It’s to be well informed enough to understand the process of training, but hold on to just enough of that rebellious attitude and skepticism to search for ways to do things better. It’s this balance of old and new, respect for history without the dogmatic reliance of ‘we do this because we’ve always done it this way’, that we need to attempt to develop.

And that’s the key to me. When we’re looking at solving this riddle of understanding strength or endurance from another perspective, or from a grander view in preventing ourselves from believing “dumb” things, the key is understanding the history and the process. We need to have appreciation and understanding of how the current thought processes developed from the practical viewpoint.Tiring this all back together, the important consideration to me is to learn from both a practical viewpoint to see where and how the current theories developed and then use the current “academic” knowledge to understand why those processes work and maybe how to tweak them. To give an example, when I wanted to learn about strength training, I had a decent understanding for the “science” side because that’s what I was exposed to in school, but I went back and looked at what some of the best minds in the strength/sport/conditioning community were doing at the time and where those ideas evolved from, including a german text or two, which was rather interesting.  It’s not perfect, but it gave me an appreciation for how we got to modern theory on strength or power training.My goal was simple. I wanted to get a glimpse of the model in which they understood their world. I knew what model I was biased to see it through. But if I could wrap my head around just a little bit on the lens they saw the world through, it would help me understand the different perspective and make better decisions that weren’t blinded by my own domain expertise.The point of this rambling blog wasn’t to disparage strength or endurance coaches, but instead show why really smart people can believe dumb things, and what we can do about it to make sure that we don’t end up on the dumb side of the coin.


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