Performance Decline, Dynapenia, and Why Plyometrics Are Critical for the Aging Athlete

by Betsy and Bob Youngman

Abstract

We have all been witness to our personal athletic performance declines as we age – our 10 km running times creep up, our place at the Birkie slowly sinks, or our perceived “snappiness” in training fades. It’s universal, affecting all athletes to varying degrees, but what is the origin of this decline? 

In the following article, we explore age-associated athletic performance declines and the likely physiological causes. Some have surmised that these performance declines are due to a number of things happening while we age – the three primary ones being reduced VO2 max (aerobic capacity), loss of muscle mass (sarcopenia), and diminished recovery. Our research and personal experience indicate that very little of the performance decline is associated with a reduction in VO2 max or an inability to fully recover after training. We have found that sarcopenia is also playing a minor role but that age-associated muscle composition changes are the most likely primary cause for observed performance declines. Specifically, we find that preferential loss of Type II muscle and resultant peak power reduction (a.k.a. dynapenia) is the physiological process that is most consistent with observed age-associated athletic performance declines. 

Based on the impacts of dynapenia on power generation, we suggest approaches for any athlete to slow down, stop, or potentially reverse sport-specific declining power. In addition to year-round strength training, central to this approach is the year-round integration of plyometric exercises into one’s training program.

Note: This article is also posted at our other website https://thefastmaster.wordpress.com that is focused on training for masters cross country skiing athletes. However the content of this article applies to all endurance athletes, independent of sport and is why it is also being posted here.

Introduction

There are lots of things going on as we age – both physical and mental. On the physical side, an aging athlete will see a steady decline in performance, sometimes even with about the same training stimuli as when younger. Some will have diminished recovery, some will see significant reductions in VO2 max, some will experience increased injury rates, while others may perceive decreased power generation. On the mental side, an aging athlete will likely be dealing with a large spectrum of demands including a career, family, and other “big life” pressures. Often performance declines are a combination of these physical and mental changes. Even the best athletes will see their performance decline, although perhaps at a slower rate than for the other 99.5%. It is clear that there is something fundamental happening as we age that inhibits our abilities to perform in athletic events.

It has been proposed that the combined effects of reductions in VO2 max, diminished recovery, and loss of lean muscle mass (sarcopenia) are responsible for the bulk of observed performance declines in masters athletes. 

Recently we covered the subject of diminished recovery in aging athletes,

and found that, although many masters athletes find diminished recovery, it likely has origins in high-stress levels outside of training. There is currently no well-documented physiological process that can explain the observed diminished recovery that many aging athletes feel. There are also masters athletes, however, that do not experience diminished recovery, and often, when investigated, it is found that these athletes appear to have managed to control (minimize) the levels of secondary physiologic stress (emotional & intellectual), that can make significant contributions to one’s overall ability to recover from the primary physiologic stress of structured training. Clearly, the “net stress” any athlete is experiencing will have effects on one’s ability to recover from training and grow as an athlete and, ultimately control one’s ability to approach performance limits. But even with “optimized” stress management, an aging athlete will experience performance declines.

Declines in VO2 max have been proposed as a primary reason for observed performance declines, however, a critical look at the literature on this subject reveals that data to support this supposition is weak at best. Our experience is that, for athletes that engage with structured training that includes proper doses of high-intensity intervals, age-associated VO2 max declines from peak values as a young athlete (20-30 years of age) can be very small (5-10%) well into the 60+ years of age range. This magnitude of reduction is much smaller than the 1% per year (starting at age 30) that is often quoted. Although reduced VO2 max is likely playing a role in performance declines, it is not the controlling factor. For instance, a range of 5-10% difference in VO2 max is represented within the top 10 at every World Cup race, yet it is not controlling the winner of the race – the athlete with the highest VO2 max is not always the winner. The same holds true for masters competitors. An upcoming article will address this topic more fully.

Sarcopenia, although a large issue with the general population, is significantly less prevalent and occurs to a lesser degree in the masters athlete population in general. It is a very small factor for those athletes who incorporate year-round strength training in their training programs and therefore sarcopenia is not a primary cause of performance declines in these masters athletes.

The question then is: What are the causes of our diminished and decaying ability to perform as well as we did when younger? As will be expanded upon below, one singularly and extremely important factor is obvious: a decline in the ability to generate power. Power is the generation of force over distance (a.k.a. work) per unit time – simply, high power is a high force in short periods. As will be discussed here, power generation is critically important in all sports and plays a central role in cross country skiing. Each classic stride, double pole, and V1 or V2 push-off is entirely dependent upon one’s ability to generate power – exerting high forces over a short period of time, e.g. exerting high force during the milliseconds-length periods of time during classic kicking, skating push-off, and double poling. Because of this reality, a focus on power generation is a primary part of all developing and elite athlete’s training. However, it is safe to say that, by and large, power generation is not a common focus for masters skiers. As a result, power-focused training modes represent fertile ground for improvement for masters skiers. We hope that after reading this article you will have an increased appreciation for the importance of power development in your skiing and that you might consider adding power-building exercises into your training regimen. We are convinced that, if you do, you will see increased performance, efficiency, and enjoyment.

Performance Declines in Aging Athletes

Performance declines in aging athletes are well documented and have been analyzed by many authors over the past few decades. From a general perspective, these studies show masters age-group world records declining in an exponential fashion as a function of increasing age. The figure below shows the performance decline for long-distance track running events, where the data are normalized to the overall world record for the respective event. As can be seen from the graph, the world record 60-year-old athlete is about 25% slower than the overall world record holder in these events. This is a convenient factor to have in mind as it allows for comparison to elite-level performance for a masters athlete when in a race that includes elite-level athletes. Although there is no reliable way to collect comparable record times over specific distances in cross country skiing (due to the large influence of snow conditions and equipment choices), these track events (and the marathon) are likely the closest analog to the types of performance declines observed in cross country skiing.

Fractional performance declines as a function of age for track running events. Data are masters world records normalized to the overall world record for the respective events. Taken from “Age-Associated Power Decline from Running, Jumping, and Throwing Male Masters World Records”, P. Gava, et al., Experimental Aging Research, 41: 115–135, 2015.

When modeled, declines in track running events (as well as in many other sports), are found to exhibit exponential behavior leading to significant fall-off around 80 years of age. The figure below shows male and female performance declines indexed to the 30-year-old world record for a number of sports including non-endurance sports like weightlifting. 

Male and female Masters fractional performance declines for a number of sports indexed to world record performances at 30 years of age (not the overall world record). All events within each sport are grouped for each age. Taken from: “Aging Performance for Masters Records in Athletics, Swimming, Rowing, Cycling, Triathlon, and Weightlifting, Experimental Aging Research, 36: 453–477, 2010.

The uniform observation of exponential decay in world-record performances in sports as different as running and weightlifting is indicative of a universal underlying physiological mechanism that is controlling the performance of masters athletes in all sports. This applies to aerobic and anaerobic-centric sports alike. The single aspect that all such sports have in common is peak power development and application of this generated power to the sports-specific movement. Although an Olympic lift takes place over a time frame of milliseconds to seconds and is highly anaerobic, the same peak power development occurs in cross country skiing in milliseconds on every stride or push-off and involves not just anaerobic energy systems but aerobic energy systems as well.

The peak power magnitude is different in each sport, with the anaerobic-centric sports exhibiting much higher peak power, but the common attribute of successful masters athletes in all of these sports is peak power development, not just aerobic capacity or anaerobic energy production. It is also important to point out that peak power development is directly correlated with average power output. As such it seems reasonable to posit that the reason we see performance declines as we age is due to a compromised ability to develop peak power, independent of what sport we actively engage with – be it a power-focused sport like weightlifting or an aerobic-focused sport like running, cycling, or cross country skiing. We’ll examine what it takes to develop one’s peak power capacity below, but a primary element in power development is shortening the time it takes to apply high forces, i.e. the ability to make rapid movements is central to peak power development. 

It is commonly observed in masters athletes who train for cross country skiing, that strength training does not play the central role that it should. As well, peak power development plays an even smaller role in a typical masters athlete’s training regimen. As will be discussed below, these two elements of training are the key training modes that will enable a masters skier to progress and to break through performance barriers that one might previously have thought to be unachievable.

Dynapenia and the Aging Athlete

Dynapenia is the loss of muscular strength and power as a function of age and appears to affect everyone to some degree. The following article provides a comprehensive summary of the disease and current understanding of origins and treatments:

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22469110/

Separate from sarcopenia (loss of lean muscle mass with age), dynapenia is a loss in the ability of muscle tissue to generate power. Power development is critical in the conduct of everyday activities like walking, getting up, and other functional movements requiring force generation in short time periods. It is a very important subject of study as dynapenia is likely the cause of the inability of many older individuals to perform regular functions critical to an active and healthy life. The ability to physically get up out of a chair or bed requires certain minimum levels of muscular strength and power development (force per unit time). It is found that virtually all aging individuals who have been studied utilizing both cross-sectional and longitudinal protocols, exhibit significant levels of decreased muscular strength and power. As a result, many aging individuals will require assistance in conducting normal daily movement functions such as getting up, walking, or preparing meals. It had been originally proposed that sarcopenia was the primary cause of the observed movement deficiencies. However, data do not support this theory as observed decreases in muscle strength and power are not well correlated with muscle mass loss. Therefore, dynapenia has become a primary focus of research into the causes of age-associated functional movement decreases.

The mechanisms leading to dynapenia are not fully established, however, it is clear that the likely primary causes are two-fold: neuromuscular deficiencies and skeletal muscle structural changes. Studies have shown (and are nicely summarized in this review article)

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3571692/

that there exists significant evidence for decreasing neuromuscular excitation of motor units (voluntary muscle activation) in aging populations. As well, age-associated increases of adipose tissue (fat) incorporation within muscle and structural muscle fiber changes including decreased Type II (fast-twitch) fiber numbers and size are consistently observed.

The above-referenced studies were conducted on broad populations of aging individuals that clearly do not contain many (or, possibly, any) masters athletes and therefore are most indicative of a relatively sedentary aging population. Data for active, competitive masters athletes could offer significant insight into the causes of and, potentially, treatments for dynapenia and we look forward to any such studies.

As outlined above, we do know that all athletes exhibit declines in performance with age in both endurance and power sports. In addition, the primary similarity between these diverse sports is the development of peak power and the application of this power to sport-specific movements. Therefore, it is clear that dynapenia is a likely primary contributor to the observed age-associated performance decline in sport. Realization of the detrimental effects of dynapenia on the performance of an aging athlete forms the basis for approaches to minimize the magnitude of performance loss as we age. The remainder of this article will address approaches that minimize loss.

Physiological Origins of Dynapenia

As described above, there are currently two proposed primary physiological origins to age-associated dynapenia: neuromuscular deficiencies and skeletal muscle structural changes (specifically, preferential loss of Type II (fast-twitch) muscle fiber). 

Even in the absence of any neurological disease, neuromuscular deficiencies related to muscle strength and power, are observed in many aging populations. This is primarily attributed to disuse, i.e. a general lack of engagement with physical activity and specifically with activity challenges that target strength and power development. As will be discussed below, neuromuscular deficiencies can be straightforwardly addressed with properly designed progressive strength programs that can lead to significant improvements in neuromuscular function. Such strength programs are highly effective treatment pathways for those exhibiting dynapenia (and sarcopenia).

A significant body of evidence also exists that indicates that, as we age, while our Type I (slow-twitch) muscle fibers can, with proper training, maintain their number and size, our Type II (fast-twitch) muscle fibers reduce in both number and size:

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23425621/

Preferential loss of Type II muscle has direct impacts on strength and power since our Type II muscle is the primary muscle fiber type utilized in any motion that involves rapid high force generation. These motions include significant portions of our daily activities like getting up out of a chair, climbing stairs, and lifting objects. Of course, all sports involve rapid high force (i.e. high power) generation to varying degrees, and therefore any reduction in Type II muscle fiber number or size will adversely affect performance in sport. Here again, properly designed progressive strength and power programs can slow down such type II muscle loss and, in some cases, lead to Type II muscle growth (hypertrophy). With Type II muscle, the “use it or lose it” paradigm is central and plays a controlling role. We suggest here that the age-associated decline in Type II muscle is the primary cause of the performance declines summarized above.

The inclusion of regular strength and power exercise programs into our routines can significantly reduce the adverse effects of dynapenia (and sarcopenia) and lead to much more active lifestyles. For the masters athlete, similar (but more challenging) strength and power development programs will lead to increased performance in sport. There is no denying that progressive strength programs play a central role in sustainable active lifestyles for the general population and are critical for excellence in sports performance for masters athletes and recreational participants alike.

The Importance of Neuromuscular Stimuli and Associated Strength Programs for the Aging Athlete

In the recent review article referenced above:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4849483/

the authors outline evidence supporting the assertion that neuromuscular deficiencies play a central role in the development and advancement of dynapenia in aging populations. This is primarily found to be due to a lack of engagement with challenging physical exercise within these populations. However, even among those individuals who regularly partake in vigorous exercise, declines, albeit of lower magnitude, are observed. This indicates that even regular engagement in sport is not sufficient to diminish the effects of dynapenia. The performance declines in world records as a function of age summarized above further support the notion that even the best aging athletes are subject to the ravages of dynapenia. A portion of the observed decline among these elite masters athletes is likely due to non-optimized training programs, some of which do not emphasize or even include, progressive general and sport-specific strength and power training. Realization of the positive (and essential) effects of strength training on one’s performance in masters sports events is slowly gaining traction across the world and, as a result, we expect that significant increases in masters performance will be observed in the coming decade.

Strength training (also known as resistance exercise training (RET)), has been shown to be highly effective in slowing down and, in some cases, reversing the effects of sarcopenia and dynapenia. In their review, Law, et al. document the substantial evidence of the efficacy of including progressive strength programs as a fundamental aspect of the lifestyle of a healthy aging human. Significant improvements in strength and power along with associated increases in physical function and activity level are direct outcomes of such strength programs. 

As cross country skiing athletes, we know very well the importance of strength and power for success. The inclusion of general and sport-specific strength training in any training program has been emphasized by us as critical to advancing as a cross country skier (or as a runner, a cyclist, etc.). One of the central operating mechanisms in the utility of RET in increases in strength and power is neuromuscular in origin. In order for one to efficiently activate and fire muscle fibers, neuromuscular pathways, known as myelination, must be established and consistently utilized in repetitive exercises. Such repetitive work is also called “deep practice” and is thought to be fundamental to excellence in sport and other endeavors. The following video provides more background on myelination:

https://hls.ted.com/project_masters/4831/manifest.m3u8

As we have reviewed previously, repeated activation of muscle fibers in a fashion exactly like (or similar to) those that we use in our sport is critical to becoming efficient in producing such sport-specific movements. The associated myelination that occurs during this practice will “hardwire” your muscular system to produce efficient motions. For example, try our “Herringbone Hell” workout:

One will quickly see how effective “deep practice” (and the associated myelination) is in taking your skill level to new heights. As Daniel Coyle, the author of the book “The Talent Code,” says in response to the old adage “Practice makes perfect” – it should be: “Practice makes myelin and myelin makes perfect.” The importance of challenging, repeated, practice of the fundamental movements in one’s sport should not be underestimated.

Plyometrics and Power Development

Skill is not the only thing that is developed when engaging with “deep practice” – power development is also improved. This is because the two are intimately linked since the skill (firing muscles in the correct order, over the correct time periods, and in the correct position) will produce the highest force generation in the shortest time period relevant to the motion. Being able to produce the highest force is the first step in further developing one’s power in sport-specific movements. Without skill, any further power development can be wasted in inefficient application to movement. Skill and power are inexorably tied together and must be developed together. Plyometric exercises (repeated dynamic and explosive sport-specific motions) are, far and away, the best modality to effectively develop both skill and power in a controlled and progressive manner. These exercises address both neuromuscular development and type II muscle growth stimulus that are critical to performance excellence as a masters skier.

In addition to reduced or minimal strength training as compared to younger and elite athletes, masters athletes also tend to not include plyometrics in their training programs. Plyometrics are a fundamental part of training for elite athletes in all sports, and particularly for cross country skiers. The development of increased power in sport-specific movements requires not just RET, but rapid sport-specific and challenging plyometric exercises that assist in myelination and develop one’s ability to efficiently generate high levels of specific power. 

What is Plyometrics?

Plyometrics are strength exercises aimed at the development of instantaneous power in highly dynamic movements. Plyometric exercises are typified by the “box jump” where one jumps up onto a box in one two-legged or one-legged leap. This requires the development of high power (high work (force X distance) over a short duration) in order to enable one to lift their body weight up some distance into the air and onto the box. Because of the short (millisecond) timeframe over which work is conducted, these exercises elicit the recruitment of primarily Type II (fast-twitch) muscle fibers. The development of such high power capacities is important in many of the fundamental movements in cross country skiing such as “kick” in classic skiing, “push-off” in freestyle, and classic double poling. In addition to the use and development of Type II fibers, the “stabilizer” muscle systems are also developed. These small muscle groups are the origin of good balance and are essential in proper skiing technique and skiing economy.

https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/a-z/what-is-plyometrics

The neuromuscular adaptations (myelination) associated with the specific movements while engaging with plyometrics are critical to development of efficient movement. This is why it is important to design exercises that replicate or mimic the motions and balance that are utilized in cross country skiing. Studies have shown that incorporation of regular plyometric sessions results in increased economy in distance running:

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12627298/

The utilization of plyometrics for training has long been applied in cross country skiing since the same types of movement and application of impulse forces is occurring. Although more difficult to measure analytically, skiing economy is observed to increase when athletes include consistent plyometric training in their programs. 

The neuromuscular adaptations from plyometric exercises enable high instantaneous power and associated coordinated timing that lead to very efficient power delivery on snow and therefore positively affect skiing efficiency. The associated Type II muscle growth stimulus inherent in engaging with plyometric exercises provides the ability for an athlete to take full advantage of these neuromuscular adaptations and maximize power production.

As a result of these adaptations, properly designed plyometric exercises provide a “triple whammy” training stimulus (strength/power development, balance development, and economy development) that, on a minute-for-minute comparison with other training modes, is a very efficient spend of training time.

Plyometrics for Masters Skiers

The concept that a masters athlete would actively engage with rapid, explosive, and challenging exercises on a regular basis has been dismissed by many masters coaches and athletes as “inappropriate”, “too risky”, “too challenging”, or “asking for injury”. Such admonitions have lead to a situation where an overwhelming majority of masters skiers do not include plyometrics in their training programs even though these exercises represent one the most important and efficient elements of training for competitive cross country skiing. 

Arguments against the inclusion of plyometrics in training programs for masters skiers include concerns over high connective tissue stress, over-reaching, and potential for falls (or other missteps), each of which could lead to injury. Although these are all valid concerns, it is straightforward to design and execute upon plyometric exercise programs that minimize the potential for occurrence of any of these concerns. Rather than setting aside the entire concept of utilizing plyometrics for masters athletes, we suggest that it will be most productive if an athlete were to include such exercises in a progressive way under the supervision of a strength and conditioning professional. The key part of this approach is to be progressive and to not proceed with increased intensity and volume at too fast a rate. This is true for any strength program but is critical for plyometric programs due to the high muscle and joint stress typically experienced during the execution of the exercises. 

Our experience is that the inclusion of a rigorous plyometric exercise program along with aerobic and strength training is very approachable for the vast majority of masters athletes. The benefits of the targeted development of power, balance, and efficiency in sport-specific motions provided by plyometrics will be obvious even after just four weeks of execution upon a well-designed progressive program. We highly recommend considering the addition of plyometrics to one’s weekly training but to do so with the assistance of a strength and conditioning professional familiar with the implementation of plyometrics.

An early season (October 11) 4” snowstorm doesn’t deter the masters athletes in Betsy’s and EJ’s Fall Dryland training group here in Sun Valley. Uphill bounding with poles, shown here, is an excellent, relatively low impact, sport-specific plyometric exercise with big benefits for fitness, power, and technique. It’s also dog-friendly!

Plyometric exercises that are typically used for cross country ski training include box jumps, single and two-legged hops, hill bounding with or without poles, “skiers lunge”, and “lunge-ups” among many others. A good resource is the book High Powered Plyometrics: 

We have provided examples of plyometric exercises for master skiers previously and we include links below to three short videos that we put together outlining two such exercises. There are many others and they can all be approached in a progressive and safe manner. 

Plyometrics Introduction, “Box” Jumps and “Hops”:

Summary

The observed performance declines in athletic performance as a function of age have a common origin, independent of the specific sport. The common origin is age-associated decreased power development in sport-specific motions. Such loss of muscular power is called dynapenia and is a disease that appears to affect everyone to some degree. 

It has been found that dynapenia is likely caused by age-associated neuromuscular deficiencies and preferential loss of Type II muscle. Studies have shown that engagement with structured resistance exercise training (a.k.a. strength training) is central to slowing down, stopping, or possibly reversing the detrimental effects of the disease. 

For the masters athlete, the inclusion of plyometric exercises into one’s training program provides targeted, highly functional training stimuli that directly address the primary causes of dynapenia and the associated declines in athletic performance. The use of progressive, properly designed, plyometric exercises will lead to increases in athletic performance, including more powerful sport-specific motions, superior balance, and increased economy. Additionally, these exercises will help with injury prevention and general physical durability.

We highly recommend including plyometrics into your regular training – not just for sport, but for your active life!

The Myth of Diminished Recovery for the Aging Athlete

As aging athletes we often hear that, as we age, our recovery from training and racing is diminished and that this lack of recovery accelerates with age. In fact, we have espoused this same mantra here on this site and elsewhere when interacting with masters athletes. But there was always something unsettling to us about that: neither of us actually felt that “diminished” recovery, even now that we are well into our 60’s. Our recovery from training and racing is similar to that when we were young, pink-lunged elite endurance athletes aspiring to excellence at national and international races. Why is it that we feel this way and why is our recovery essentially unchanged with age? And why is this in such contrast to many of the published articles on the topic, the recommendations of “experts,” and the personal observations of many masters athletes?

Not having fully investigated the body of research on this topic, we thought it worthwhile to take a look and critically analyze the available data and the concepts being put forth that support diminished recovery in aging athletes. What we found is, (and as is often the case in the field of experimental physiology) very weak data and many unfounded conclusions – some that have been promulgated through the years and that have led to the current general acceptance of diminished recovery in aging athletes. What we also found was significant, strong, data that the sub-population of aging athletes (and even just physically active aging populations) show no evidence for diminished physiologic recovery in response to training stimuli.

Betsy, age 59, charges a hill in the scramble leg in the relay at World Masters 2018 – setting the pace for competitors 20-30 years her junior.

In the remainder of this article we will critically review the work on this topic, provide some guidance on how to interpret the available data, and suggest some preliminary alternative hypotheses that are in alignment with the reality of a very diminished “diminished recovery” paradigm for aging athletes. But first, a few thoughts about stress.

stress is stress, no matter the origin

Stress is critical to development, whether it be physiological, emotional, or intellectual in origin. The response of the human body to these stressors allows for adaptations that typically lead to incremental increases in physical ability, emotional resilience, and enhanced thought platforms, respectively. However, these adaptations will only occur if the challenge presented by the stress is less than some critical value defining physical, emotional, or intellectual breakdown for the individual and, importantly, that we allow for recovery from the substantial work required to accommodate the applied stressors. One must also ensure that further stress, applied later, can be similarly accommodated. This leads to the well-known simple equation:

STRESS + REST = GROWTH

Generally, motivated athletes are very good at applying physiologic stress. We enjoy the challenge of the workout and the physical and mental satisfaction of completing a training session and building our abilities towards a goal.

What many athletes are not good at is ensuring sufficient rest in advance of planned workout sessions. Other elements of our lives often interfere with necessary rest and limit our capacity to fully recover prior to the next scheduled training session. In addition, the “more is better” mindset can invade our psyche and athletes can slowly (but surely will) follow a path to serial over-reaching and the associated negative consequences (increased tiredness, depressed heart rates, irritability, “bad” workouts, and eventually breakdown). Extreme cases of this lead to over-training and, often, the end of athletic careers. The importance of rest can not be overemphasized.

Getting back to stress, it’s important to point out that stress is stress, no matter the origin. Although, as athletes, we focus on physiological stress (our workout sessions), we also must be cognizant of any other stressors in our lives, be it emotional, intellectual, societal (e.g. family and friends), or atmospheric (e.g. weather and air quality). Some of these stressors can lead to increased secretion of “stress hormones” like epinephrine and cortisol that, when chronic, produce secondary physiologic stress which is in addition to any training load. Such chronic stresses keep what is known as the “HPA axis” persistently active at a low levels. The “HPA axis” is the system consisting of the hypothalamus in the brain, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands that work together to signal the body to produce both epinephrine and cortisol in “fight or flight” situations.

All of these stressors – training load, emotional load, intellectual load, and other things that add stress to our lives – add together and lead to a net total stress that must be accommodated by appropriate rest in order for growth to occur.

stress in young vs. masters athletes

When thinking about the typical life of a young, committed, athlete, it is clear that non-physiological stressors are limited when compared to a typical masters athlete. Such young athletes will often have focused their lives on athletic goals as the primary driver of their existence and therefore have limited most extramural activities to very minimal levels. This naturally results in lower levels of net total stress that will help allow an athlete the capacity to engage in challenging training regimens and ensure full recovery between training sessions and therefore maximize one’s growth potential. (Note: non-physiological stress can be significant for some young athletes depending on their individual situation: funding concerns, significant travel, family objections, etc. and this often plays a role in success.)

The situation for the typical masters athlete is quite different. Usually a full-time job is occupying a large fraction of available time and can bring with it significant emotional, intellectual, societal, and physical stress. In addition, many masters athletes have active (and often growing) families that add significant additional stress and time constraints to their lives. And, importantly, motivational drivers typically change for masters athletes from a primary (almost singular) focus on athletic performance to a larger spectrum of drivers associated with other important elements of a masters athlete’s life, such as career advancement, parenting, and hobbies, among others.

The “bigger” your life, the “bigger” the stress. Professional athletes are acutely aware of this and often become “monastic” about their training and recovery, with extremely limited outside interests and activities. Most masters athletes do not have (nor do many want) this level of singular focus and will therefore need to deal with all of the consequences of an active “big” life that comes with a career, a family, and athletic pursuit. The additional (secondary physiologic) stress for masters athletes is important to consider when comparing younger athletes to masters athletes. A masters athlete will typically have a much larger “baseline” stress level relative to a younger, committed athlete or professional. This “baseline” stress is additive to any further primary physiologic stress from training. Therefore a masters athlete will likely need more rest than a younger athlete for an equivalent training session load.

This is the origin of the “myth” of diminished recovery for aging athletes. As will be discussed below, published studies and data support that there are only very small differences in physiologic recovery from training stimuli between young and old athletes. The real difference in our opinion,  and the difference that many masters athletes feel, lies in the secondary physiologic stress that a typical aging athlete experiences. This is true for a “typical” aging athlete, but not for all aging athletes.

Bob finishing a challenging 6 X 8 min threshold hill repeat workout leading into a taper for World Masters. With an average of 16h+ of training per week throughout the year including two interval, three strength, and three plyometric sessions per week, a near-elite-level of training is fully supportable by a 65 year old. Aging athletes may not be as fast, but we can train nearly as hard as elite skiers and still recover and improve. Not all masters skiers can (or want to) train at this level, but if you do, be sure to work with a coach to ensure you don’t over-do it.

What this means is that, with a lifestyle situation that minimizes the net total stress in one’s life, some masters athletes could be able to execute upon and recover from even elite-level endurance training. A masters athlete will never become as fast as the elite athletes (the reason for this is the subject of a separate forthcoming article), but one could potentially train in a similar manner and therefore see the same relative level of increases in endurance, race pace, and skill. So don’t let a bunch of unfounded “folklore” prevent you from aspiring to challenging training and racing experiences. You will likely have to make some changes to your life environment, but if athletic performance is an important part of your life then the sacrifice of targeted reductions in “big” life activities will be worth the effort and lead to accomplishment, reward, and satisfaction. These “life reductions” typically become much more feasible as one ‘ages-out’ of the high-time and emotional commitment years during child-rearing and career-building. This is when an aging athlete will have much more flexibility to “rearrange” aspects of their lives as careers and other responsibilities can naturally evolve to a less structured and driven environment. This is also a great time, if one is so inclined, to consider putting additional focus on one’s athletic pursuits. Engaging with a coach is recommended to ensure that proper progressive cardio, strength, and plyometric load increases are adhered to.

Note: One of the distinguishing characteristics of professional/elite endurance athletes is the ability to functionally absorb prodigious amounts of training. Not all aspiring athletes will have this ability and pursuit of elite-level training regimens as a masters athlete could be a recipe for over-training and disappointment. It is best to work with an experienced coach and develop a personal training program that is well recorded and monitored. Approaching elite-level training volumes and intensity is, obviously, extremely challenging and will be possible only for a small fraction of aging athletes, just as such training levels are possible only for a small fraction of young athletes.

The “science” of recovery for aging athletes

One of the basic concepts put forth in attempts to explain observed diminished recovery in aging athletes is something called “anabolic resistance.” Muscle remodeling (building/repair of muscle) is controlled by the dynamic balance between muscle protein breakdown (MPB) and muscle protein synthesis (MPS). “Anabolic resistance” is proposed as a physiologic process by which an aging individual exhibits reduced muscle protein synthesis (MPS) per unit of physical activity and/or nutrition (primarily protein) intake.  The imbalance in MPB and MPS can yield both positive and  negative net protein balance (NPB). In response to training stimuli, positive values of NPB lead to muscle building and repair whereas negative values will result in loss of muscle and deficient muscle repair. The concept of “anabolic resistance” is based on the assertion that, as one ages, the native ability of the body to respond to physical activity and complimentary nutrition intake to produce new/repaired muscle tissue is reduced. For the aging athlete, this means that for the same training stimulus, a smaller amount of muscle mass (relative to a younger individual) will be evident and, importantly, less muscle repair will be experienced. With a lack of muscle repair, an athlete will potentially not fully recover from a training stimulus before the next scheduled session and this is what has been proposed as the basis for an aging athlete’s reported “diminished” physiologic recovery. But do the data support this thesis?

The answer to the question above is NO. For athletes, and anyone who habitually exercises on a regular (approximately daily) basis, the data clearly show no differencein MPS between old and young subjects provided sufficient nutrition is habitually consumed. One of the issues with the research in this area is that the populations of subjects that have been studied are not representative of aging athletes, competitive masters athletes, and, importantly, not representative of “elite-level” masters athletes. Given data on aging athletes (and not general populations of aging individuals) it is foundthat there exists significant overlap between young and old subjects in many factors that are known to be indicative of whole body function (e.g. VO2max) and therefore MPS and positive NPB. Additional studies in this area where properly selected subjects that represent committed masters athletes that regularly compete at a high level are needed, however, currently available data indicate that physiologic recovery from properly dosed training stimuli are not generally compromised in aging athletes. Other processes may be affecting the overall response of these athletes to training, but the fundamental process of MPS/muscle repair is not significantly diminished*.

There are data that suggest, in sports that induce muscle damage (e.g. running or other high-impact sports), that muscle damage recovery is slower in masters athletes than that observed in younger athletes. As is usual, the studied population sizes are small and often do not include “elite-level” masters. It is proposed in these studies that the observed diminished MPS rate is insufficient for masters athletes to fully recover prior to subsequent training sessions in these high-impact sports.

Cross country skiing, for example, has historically been considered a low-impact sport, and it is low impact for the lower body muscle groups. However, the increased use of double poling in classic skiing, as well as the development of poling technique and dependence thereon in freestyle skiing, has changed this, at least for the upper body musculature. Modern double poling technique in skiing on groomed snow and roller skiing on pavement is clearly a high impact activity. We can attest to there being no issue with upper body muscle recovery rates in our skiing and roller skiing even when we (often) do double pole-specific interval and endurance workouts and after classic races and time trials where we have double-poled the entire race on hilly terrain (including World Cup homologized courses). We have similar results with trail and mountain running (and the associated lower body muscle groups), an activity that is dominant in our “dryland” training for cross country skiing. So our experience stands separate from the studies noted above and, based on interactions with other masters athletes, we expect this to be true for at least some (as yet undefined) sub-population of masters  athletes. Large longitudinal studies of postprandial MPS are needed to further understand the variation in MPS as a function of age across the masters athlete population (including “elite-level” masters). The small cross-sectional studies of MPS in masters athletes that are currently available do not provide sufficient statistical power for any sort of meaningful conclusive statements for such effect sizes. Our personal observations and input from other masters athletes indicates to us that it is likely that the “diminished” recovery reported in numerous studies of masters athletes is a result of the selected population in the studies and cannot be uniformly applied across the entire masters athlete population, and particularly not for “elite-level” masters athletes.

*Note: There are studies that suggest that type II MPS is compromised in aging populations. This important observation will be addressed in a separate forthcoming article about power and speed declines in masters athletes.

Again, stress is stress

So why do so many aging athletes claim that they “just cannot recover like they used to” or that they cannot support structured training volumes similar to when they were young? We propose that this response is due to secondary physiologic stress; those stresses described above that, although negatively impactful on overall response to training stimuli, are not due to a diminished physiologic processes but rather are due to other lifestyle realities (full-time job, family responsibility, mental/emotional issues, etc.) that can lead to non-optimal or even low-quality sleep as well as other parasympathetic system deficiencies. Dealing with these additional stresses places a greater burden on one’s ability to fully recover from training because the “baseline stress” level is high and the training stress/recovery required to successfully compete at a high level is not achievable or results in chronic over-reaching (and eventually over-training). No one can support chronic over-reaching and perform well at competitive events.

Addressing one’s lifestyle in the context of athletic goals is a very important process for an aging athlete to attend to, particularly if one wishes to perform at high levels of achievement nationally and internationally. Just as the younger skier is making difficult choices on what lifestyle activities are appropriate or sustainable given certain athletic goals, the master skier must also make such difficult choices and sacrifices to optimize training and maximize performance at events.

goal alignment with life and physiologic stresses

Approaching your athletic goals within a process that accounts for the reality of your chosen lifestyle will lead to an achievement level that is well-aligned to what you can actually do, not necessarily what you could potentially do. Unfortunately, many aging athletes have goals that are just not consistent with their other lifestyle choices and this will clearly lead to disappointment. This also applies to young athletes as well.

An assessment of your lifestyle realities (e.g. job, family, etc.) along with addressing and reducing those aspects that lead to high “baseline” stress will allow you, as a masters athlete, to minimize the net total stress that you experience and therefore optimize your training and recovery for the achievement of whatever your well-aligned athletic goals may be. The realization that one’s “lack of recovery” is not an inevitable product of aging, but is something that we have significant control over is the first step toward achieving athletic success as a competitive masters athlete, however you choose define it.

Train well, be well!

Salomon S Lab NSO Socks – excellent socks for every trail runner from technical trail aficionados to long distance grinders

Salomon socks have been something of an enigma in the US. Although broadly available in Europe, the sock lines have had very limited distribution in the US. This seems to be the result of the fact that Salomon don’t actually own the rights to distribution of their socks- this was sold to Intersock Group (ITA) in 2002 . For a while Interlock Group had a US affiliate in Portland, OR that offered a very limited selection of Salomon socks through a rudimentary online shop and to some retail outlets. This selection included only a few of the running socks. Having been introduced to the full line of excellent Salomon socks whilst in Europe many years ago, I sought out a source here in the US- sometimes the Intersock Group affiliate would have the socks available online but often there was limited stock or certain models were not brought in to the US. So in past years, when in Europe I would pick up a few  pair of socks. It was a non-ideal situation, particularly when the socks started wearing out.

But there seems to be movement on availability of Salomon socks in the US. A new Intersock Group affiliate (Sport Dispatch) has picked up the line and they are bringing in an expanded line of Salomon socks to the US market, including running, alpine, and nordic socks. I was contacted and offered samples for testing and agreed to accept the samples. This post is a review of the S Lab NSO line of Salomon trail running socks- it’s their top-line offering and includes quite a bit of technology. After extensive use of the NSO samples I subsequently purchased six pair of one of the NSO variants, so although I did accept samples, I personally purchased the product because I liked it.

My past use has included three models of Salomon socks, the most recent being a very minimalist sock called the “Sense” sock. It was introduced in 2015 or so and I have been using it since. I bought six pairs and they have only this past season begun wearing out (at the heel counter and in the heel base). That’s four full mountain running seasons of wear and tear and represents excellent durability. The performance was outstanding as the socks provided sufficient protection yet were thin enough to not be intrusive and they dried out very quickly. I had similar experience with prior versions of Salomon socks and have found them to be among the best offerings at any given time.

I am not convinced that a running sock should provide padding and these “Sense” socks provided no padding. I prefer to let my selected shoe provide whatever cushioning I need- the cushioning is where it needs to be and is stable and not potentially moving around or changing fit levels. This is just my preference as I know many runners are convinced that their highly cushioned socks are an important part of their comfort and performance. The following review of the Salomon S Lab NSO socks will be colored by this preference of minimal cushioning.

Salomon S Lab NSO Sock line

Salomon have chosen to divide the S Lab NSO running sock line into three variants- Short Run, Mid Run, and Long Run. The socks have increasing levels of features and technology as the intended use as a function of run length is increased. I’ll review the included technologies and features for each variant but will start with an overview. There is also an NSO compression sock (NSO Leg Up)  that I will mention at the end of this post. The “science” (such that it is) is undecided on the efficacy of compression for recovery and/or support in running and I’ll address that later.

Salomon S Lab NSO 2019 sock line including, Short Run, Mid Run, and Long Run as well as a compression sock called the Leg Up.

nso sock technologies

The “NSO” in the S Lab NSO “Short run”, “Mid run”, “Long run”, and “Leg Up” sock designations refers to the “enso” Zen Buddhist single-stroke calligraphy of a circle. Enso drawings are a part of meditative practice and take many meanings including “harmonious cooperation”, which is the intended meaning put forth by Salomon. More on the “cooperation” aspect below.

Salomon works with their athletes and Intersock Group to design and manufacture the sock lines. This involves interaction of the most demanding users (elite athletes) with the experienced Salomon designers and the sock technology experts at Intersock Group.

The primary new technology offered by the NSO line is based on oxide particle infusion of fabrics. Fabrics with appropriate composition oxide particles are claimed to provide far infrared radiation reflection and emission*. In Salomon’s words- naturally generated heat (including far infrared wavelengths) from the body interacts with the oxide particles in the fabric to “activate and reflect this energy, enhancing muscle tone, recovery, and balance”. Wow, that’s a lot of function from some oxide particles! But let’s back up and look into the proposed basis for this technology.

photobiomodulation (pbm)

Photobiomodulation (PBM) is process in which low levels (fluences) of light energy are utilized to interact in a positive way with human tissue. PBM (also known as Low- Level Laser Therapy (LLLT)) has found utility in treating medical conditions including  hearing loss, foot tendinopathy, diabetes, cardiac conditions, and cancer. PMB is increasingly being accepted as a promising treatment therapy. That, of course, as in any “medical science” claim, does not mean that the therapy is efficacious. It may just mean that a new experimental therapy which has a large placebo effect can be easily made into a profit center. Such is medicine today.

The applications of PBM for athletic endeavor include the use of such treatments to assist in dilation of vascular tissue. Specifically it has been found that nitric oxide synthase (NOS) (an enzyme) participates in numerous biological processes by enabling the in-situ production of NO (nitric oxide) within tissue. NO is claimed to be critical to regulating something called vascular tone. Vascular tone is the degree of constriction of vascular tissue. NO production is associated with vasodilation and therefore promotion of the formation of NO is viewed as being a positive outcome for athletic activity.

NO production is also claimed to be critical to general athletic performance. As usual, the many claims are not well supported (or even supported at all) but you can do your own background reading and decide independently. Beware anything scientific being written by MDs- they are not scientists.

Further, it has also been claimed that NOS production (and therefore NO) is enhanced by radiation of human tissue with far infrared (FIR) wavelengths (about 5 microns-1000 microns (1 mm)). This is a wavelength region situated between mid infrared/near infrared (MIR/NIR) and visible light on the short wavelength end and microwaves on the long wavelength side. Infrared radiation has colloquially been referred to as “heat waves” since this radiation, which is invisible to the human eye, can heat a substance that is comprised of molecules that can oscillate under the influence of the radiation. The molecule movement produces internal friction that results in heat.

For FIR irradiation, water and human tissue are found to be excited by these wavelengths and it is proposed that this excitation can lead to both internal heat generation and enhanced production of NOS and therefore NO. Inference and some observational data indicate that reduced vascular restriction can result from FIR irradiation. FIR, at appropriate intensity, is experienced by the human body as a gentle heat which is a direct result of the interaction of this radiation with human tissue.

OK, so much for NOS and NO (and not to be confused with NSO!…).

Now, it is well known that certain inorganic materials and certain polymers can efficiently reflect and/or emit FIR wavelengths when irradiated with equal or higher energy rays (i.e. FIR wavelengths and shorter). The inorganic materials most prominently used for FIR reflection/emission are primarily mineral oxide compounds such as tourmaline (a naturally occurring borosilicate compound). Fabric manufacturers have been developing products that contain nano-sized particulates of these FIR reflector/emitter compounds. It is asserted that the FIR radiation that naturally emanates from the human body is reflected back into the body and that this can promote increases in NOS and, therefore, NO and, therefore, decreased vascular restriction. Obviously, athletic clothing has been a primary focus for the fabric manufacturers since keeping blood flowing will have only positive effects for both performance and recovery. This proposed effect is also where Salomon have used the “enso” (NSO) connection- the body’s natural generation of FIR is reflected back by the oxide particles and assists in vasodilation via a synergistic, “enso”-like, “harmonious cooperation” process.

There exists scant data that supports any measurable efficacy of the use such FIR reflecting particle-infused clothing in athletic endeavor. There are, however, more reliable, although not conclusive, data for other applications of the use of FIR for treating certain medical conditions (e.g. lymphedema) that have been interpreted as being the result of FIR-induced vasodilation via the NOS-NO pathway. So there is promise but no clarity at the moment on application in athletics.

Lack of data has never stopped marketeers (or “woo-woo” medical practitioners), particularly when what is being marketed involves increased human comfort or, in the case of athletics, increased performance or recovery. And that is where we are today with the use of inorganic particulates in athletic clothing- an essentially made-up advantage (that may or may not end up being real) with manufacturers claiming efficacy and users claiming positive benefits- all without supporting data. Of course we should not ignore the reality of large placebo effects that may be at play as well.

Back to the S Lab NSO socks. What Salomon have done is to include mineral oxide infused fabric in the sock to promote vasodilation in and around the foot and ankle. Feet and ankles, as all runners know, are (and excuse the pun) the Achilles heel of running since all propulsion is centered around the foot and any issue with ones feet (including the Achilles) will very adversely affect ones running. Having strong, high performing, and quickly recovering feet and ankles is critical to being able to train and perform at our best. Salomon are proposing that these socks with FIR reflecting mineral particle infused fabrics will improve our running performance and allow for quicker recovery. Perhaps this is true, but perhaps not, and only further data, analysis, and mechanistic scientific work will give us answers. In the meantime it probably does not hurt to try the technology, make personal observations, and come to some position on the subject. It is claimed that the nano-particles are inhert to the body and serve only to emit/reflect FIR radiation into the body, so there appear to be no downsides to trying these fabrics out. There is, however, the overriding concern about physical absorption of nano-particles into the body and bloodstream and any possible adverse health effects due to absorption of these particles in either short or long term. Something to think about but I’m in the camp that provided the sock performs well as a sock, having some other potential feature that may assist in performance and recovery is a positive thing and worthy of trying out. You can make your own determination.

SAlomon S Lab NSO sock line details

As noted above Salomon is offering the NSO sock line in three variants, each focused on different run “lengths”- short run, mid run, and long run. The primary differences are in the level of cushioning and compression offered by each variant with the highest amount of cushioning and compression being in the long run sock. All of these socks are designed enanitiomorpically, i.e. the socks pairs have a left and right.  But there are other differences as well and I will review them here.

Nso short run

The Short Run variant of the NSO sock is a minimalist sock that provides a thin layer of cushioning at the heel and toe and thin or super thin materials everywhere else. For those that like a minimalist sock (as I do), this version of NSO line will likely be appealing.

Top side of the NSO Short Run sock. Note the super thin material through the mid-section and the four “stripes” across (and around) the sock in the forefoot. The “stripes” have a slightly sticky silicone material coating that is intended to help hold one’s foot in place under demanding situations like steep downhills, steep ascents, and technical trail.

This model has the least amount of technologies in the NSO line but does include the oxide particle fiber material (Quantum Energy). The other features of this sock are extreme thin-ness in the mid-foot and ankle area and represents one of the most minimal of socks out there for trail running.

Salomon NSO Short Run. The entire NSO line in enanitiomorpic- meaning all socks have a left and right.

Minimalist socks are my preference and the NSO Short Run is an outstanding minimalist offering. They are very lightweight and have a skin-fit with flat seams. The heel and forefoot cushioning is noticeable but not annoying. The silicone “stripes” intended to keep the foot from moving within the shoe seems a bit unnecessary. It is my position that the fit of the shoe is what will take care of that — buy a properly fitted shoe and there will be very little movement within the shoe. Another reviewer of the Salomon NSO sock line** thought highly of the silicone “stripes” as they could make a badly fitting shoe work better. Well, why run in a badly fitting shoe? Particularly if you are using Salomon shoes with EndoFit, SensiFit and the other “fit” technologies that make Salomon the superior shoe for fit. Let the shoe do what it is supposed to do and do not depend on a sock to fix a badly fitting shoe. The “grip stripes” are present in all three variants of the NSO sock line and the comments above apply to all the variants.

Salomon NSO Short Run. A very minimalist sock with a skin fit and lots of technology.

The “short run” sock has performed very well in a wide range of conditions from early spring wet and snow to super dry and “moondust” summer conditions. They dry quickly, are transparently comfortable, breathe exceedingly well, and do a good job of keeping tiny dust particles in dry conditions away from the foot. The sock is very thin in certain areas (e.g. across the middle of the foot where shoes are generally cinched down). This eliminates any concern with thick, bunched up, fabric in this critical area. As a result the socks essentially disappear and just do the job of protecting your feet from abrasion and dust. Is the NSO technology doing anything? I don’t know. I do know that these socks are a great choice for those who like a minimal sock. This is my current go-to sock and , as indicated above I bought six pair of this “short run” variant for daily use.

NSO Mid Run

The Mid Run variant in the NSO line adds a bit more cushioning throughout the sole and mid-foot of the sock whilst maintaining all of the technologies in the “short run” model. This variant also includes something called Nano-Glide, a polyamide coating on the fibers that minimizes friction between skin and the sock. The Nano-Glide technology has been used in Salomon socks for at least 7 years and I can attest to it’s efficacy. I have never had a blister, hot spot, or even a red spot while using socks with the Nano-Glide fiber coating. My only gripe- Nano-Glide socks can be difficult to slide through certain tights. It is apparent that the materials that some Salomon tights are composed of “catch” the Nano-Glide coating and make it difficult to get your foot through when putting on the tights. I’ve noticed that the latest Salomon tights that I have do not exhibit this issue.

Top side of the NSO Mid Run sock. Note the compression knit through the mid-section and the five “stripes” across (and around) the sock in the forefoot. The “stripes” have a slightly sticky silicone material coating that is intended to help hold one’s foot in place under demanding situations like steep downhills, steep ascents, and technical trail.

There is also a limited amount of compression in the mid-forefoot area and around the lower part of the ankle. Based on available evidence in many studies, compression shows no reliable efficacy but there may be a significant placebo effect. So although there may be no real performance advantage, you might “feel” better with compression and, to be honest, that is what matters particularly in long runs and races. I do not have this placebo effect so compression is not something that I look for, in fact I find it to be annoying in some cases. But — to each their own!

The Salomon NSO Mid Run adds some compression knit in the mid foot, forefoot, and lower ankle, as well as NanoGlide- an anti-friction polyamide coating on the fibers.

This is still a very lightweight sock and can be viewed as the Short Run with the anti-friction NanoGlide technology and a small bit of compression mixed in. I find the fit to be excellent and the cushioning unobtrusive. They dry very quickly and provide high performance  for the basic purpose of a sock- protecting your feet from abrasion and dust. The Short Run variant is my daily-use sock but the Mid Run is often in the mix and it is hard to tell the difference between the two when running. So if you like a bit more cushion the Mid Run might be an option.

Salomon NSO Mid Run. The compression knit is more visible from a side view.

NSO Long Run

The Long Run variant is the sock that Salomon designed specifically for Francois D’Haene, the long distance specialist on the Salomon team. I’ve seen pictures of the Salomon designers/engineers working with D’Haene on these sock and concentrating on features in and around the ankle. As anyone who has run a 100 km+ race will know, ankle protection and comfort is critical to an enjoyable day and it apparent that Francois is particularly interested in this.

Top side of the NSO Long Run sock. Note the substantial compression knit material through the mid-section and ankle. The four “stripes” across (and around) the sock in the forefoot have a slightly sticky silicone material coating that is intended to help hold one’s foot in place under demanding situations like steep downhills, steep ascents, and technical trail. This variant also includes a padded area at the medial malleolus and a directional knit pattern at the lateral ankle. Note: left and right are reversed in this photo, so the medial malleolus padding is on the medial side of the socks — not on the lateral side as shown here.

The Long Run variant is basically a Mid Run with a lot more compression throughout the mid foot and ankle area. The sole, heel, and toe of the sock is virtually indistinguishable from the Mid Run including the NanoGlide polyamide coating technology. The Long Run has a couple of other features: a padded area at the medial malleolus (the knobby ankle bone) and a directional knit structure in the lateral ankle area. I understand the padding since, as when one gets tired, it is common for the medial malleolus to get “scuffed” by the opposing foot as it comes by on the run stride. You’ll see this after a run or race where scuff marks are evident in this area. In long runs and races this can lead to abrasion and pain so putting a bit a padding there makes sense. The directional knitting on the other hand seems superfluous. It falls in the same category as KT tape- useless. There is no reliable evidence that such minuscule directional tension does anything efficacious. But again, there may be a significant placebo effect so some may “feel” a difference.

The Salomon NSO Long Run showing the substantial compression knit throughout the forefoot, mid foot, and ankle. Also note the padding at the medial malleolus.

Side view of Salomon NSO Long Run sock showing compression knit and padding at ankle. Note that the entire sole of the sock is virtually identical to the Mid Run variant.

The Salomon NSO Long Run variant also includes a directional knit pattern oat the lateral ankle. Does this do anything? Probably not, but it looks cool!

The Long Run variant is a bit more of a chore to get on due the compression knit but once on it is very comfortable. Even with all of the added features it is still on the minimalist side of trail socks currently available. I find the fit to be excellent and the comfort is great. It is maybe a bit too much sock for me but I did run in this sock for a 30 km mountain race with about 1500 m (5000 ft) of climb and descent. The sock performed well and essentially disappeared- meaning that I had no thoughts about socks during the race which is exactly what one wants. I thought that a bit of extra cushioning might be desirable for a race that started out with a 6 km (4 mi) 750 m (2500 ft) climb followed by a 5 km (3 mi) 500 m (1500 ft) descent. Perhaps there was an advantage but the difference I felt was minor if at all.

price

As with all Salomon S Lab products, these sock are expensive at $28-$30 a pair, depending on the variant. But they do provide a lot of technology and some unique features all while maintaining a lightweight, minimalist ethos. Also, if the socks are as durable as other Salomon socks have been in the past, you will be using these for years and the price point then looks a bit better.

bottom line

A high technology line of high performance socks that will appeal to many trail runners, independent of specialization — from technical trail aficionados to long distance grinders. Does NSO do anything? Who knows but as with any new technology time will tell. In the meantime, the Salomon NSO line of socks offer a minimalist solution for whatever “style” of trail running you might partake in- all with excellent fit, protection, and support. And they all dry very quickly. For me it all comes down to whether or not a sock “disappears” when I use it. These do and I expect to be training and racing in these socks for years to come.

final note

As indicated at the outset, thee NSO line includes a “Leg Up” variant that is a full knee height compression sock. Although I have tried this sock out, I personally find the compression to serve no purpose other than to be annoying. So I provide no full review here. There are many others that find compression to be functional and I encourage those that do to check out the “Leg Up” NSO variant. If there is any model in this line where the NSO technology is likely to be apparent it will be in the “Leg Up” where the NSO fiber material is covering toe to knee and any FIR effect that is extant should be maximized.

*Note: Salomon also have an S Lab NSO Tee and an S Lab NSO Half Tight that utilize the same technology.

**Note: a couple of the pictures of the socks in that review are incorrectly correlated with the sock type- specifically they show the NSO Short Run as the Speed Support and the Speed Support as the NSO Short Run.

 

 

Salomon RX MOC 4.0 “Recovery” shoe – Review

I have reviewed all of the previous generations (Gen 1, Gen 2, Gen 3) of the Salomon Relax “recovery” shoe and have found the products to be very comfortable and to provide support that helps with foot recovery after long and/or technical trail runs/races. The RX Moc has been a daily wear shoe for me ever since it was offered in 2010/11 and the 4th generation is no exception.

Salomon “Relax” RX MOC 4.0

RX MOC 4.0

The outsole of the RX 4.0 is the same as in the 3.0 version and provides plenty of grip for general casual use and even the occasional foray onto trails and rock when camping/traveling.

The RX Moc 4.0 is an evolutionary product that builds upon the features, design, and function provided by the prior generations of the product. These functions include high breathability, a very “cushy” midsole, a grippy outsole, and, most importantly, a footbed design that provides support around the edge of the foot. All of this carried forward in the 4.0 version along with adding a couple of new features/materials.

But the most important feature is the “cupped” footbed that supports the edges of ones feet and that allows for comfortable walking/hiking even after a long trail run/race. As I wrote in the earlier reviews:

“The concept is that after running there are certain muscles in the feet that are more impacted by long training runs/races and require additional support after the training run or race for efficient recovery.”

My experience is that the concept works- but even if it is a placebo, the shoes are super comfortable, machine washable, and highly durable.

Top view of the RX 4.0 showing the redesigned mesh upper but the same toe bumper of the 3.0 generation.

Side view of the RX 4.0 showing the sculpted last carried forward from the 3.0 generation.

changes from 3.0 to 4.0

The primary change with the 4.0 vs the 3.0 is that the heel counter is now designed to be crushed down and thereby allow for use of the shoe in either a traditional way (with heel counter) or as a slip-on (e.g. like a clog). Many users of past models of the RX Moc have chosen to just ignore the heel counter and use the shoe as a slip on. Unfortunately the heel counter was not designed to be crushed or to be rubbed by the heel. As a result those that used the shoe in this way (including myself) found  that the crushed heel counter developed holes and this compromised use as a traditional shoe. The new design allows for both comfort and durability in switching back and forth between use types- it’s a great idea! All one has to do is remove the insole, push the heel counter down, and replace the insole- presto, you now have a slip-on.

After listening to their users, Salomon have provided a heel counter that is designed to be folded down to allow the RX 4.0 to be used both as a traditional shoe and as a slide-on. Many users of past versions did this anyway but the heel counter would wear out (develop holes) and limit the use of the shoe. Now this feature is designed in- great!

Just remove the insole, push down the heel counter, and replace the insole and presto- you now have a slip-on!

The other significant change from the 3.0 version is the insole. The 3.0 had a two layer insole that was comprised of a cushy polymer underlayer with a thin, grained faux-leather top layer. The 4.0 version has a single cushy polymer insole without a faux-leather layer. My use found that eventually the faux-leather insole layer began to delaminate from the underlayer. This occurred after many (about 25-30) machine washings. Such washings are rather rough on any adhesive system so this experience is expected. However, the faux-leather never fully delaminated and the small amount of delimitation never affected the performance of the shoe. In any case, Salomon have decided to replace the faux-leather with a one-layer system which, so far, is just as comfortable and will likely be as durable.

A minor change with the 4.0 is the mesh fabric pattern on the upper. The 4.0 has a two-piece pattern that wraps diagonally across the top of the foot whereas the 3.0 pattern is a two-piece “serpentine” pattern that is longitudinal. I do not feel a substantial difference between the two with the exception of the 4.0 feeling a bit more “huggy”. This could just be due to the fact that the 4.0 is new but time will tell.

One of the nicest aspects of this shoe is the washability. One can just throw these in the washer and let them air dry and a shoe that was quite dirty comes out looking as new. This was particularly important for the “orangey” S Lab 3.0 model that I have been using since 2013 as it would get quite dirty given daily use across many activities, including camping. I expect the same to be the case for these black 4.0’s

outsole

As mentioned above, the outsole is nicely grippy for a casual, street shoe. The outsole, however, has areas that are not particularly durable. The area within the rubber tread layer that nearly circumscribes the sole is the “chevron” pattern area that appears to be made of “midsole-type” material (likely EVA). This material does not wear well and I have found it to be essentially smoothed out within about three seasons of my daily use (April-November). That’s still a lot of use and the rubber area is still intact and quite grippy, it’s just that the total grip of the outsole is somewhat diminished. This has not prevented me from using the shoe as it still performs well even without the “chevron” pattern being present- now six years later! Just something to note.

 colorways

As this is a casual shoe, the colorway choice can be important for some users. The 4.0 is available in black with a black midsole (as shown here), blue with a white midsole, and red with a white midsole. That is quite a limited choice. In the US only the black and blue variants are available. I find the white midsole to look a bit “clunky” but that is just my opinion.

In the past there has been an S Lab version of the RX Moc and these variants were what I have reviewed earlier. The S Lab variant was just cosmetic- special colors and S Lab badging, so the shoe itself was the same. The 4.0 does not offer a S Lab variant for the 2019/20 season. Perhaps there will be one in the future. I must say that I like the black version as it blends well with many situations- athletic, casual, and, for some here in the mountains, even for more formal occasions. I likely will not wear any other casual shoe throughout the spring-summer-fall.

price

$75 US. As usual a bit on the high side but given the comfort, the foot recovery aspects, the flexibility to transform the shoe from a traditional fit to a slip-on, and the durability that I have experienced, this shoe represents a reasonable value.

bottom line

A nice evolution of a proven casual/recovery shoe with high comfort, durability, and flexibility. Highly recommended!

 

Salomon S Lab Modular Shorts System – Update

I reviewed the Salomon S Lab Modular Shorts System a couple of years ago and found the system to be very comfortable, flexible, and of high quality. After two years of use on a daily basis during the running season (April-November), I have confirmed those initial impressions and found the system to be exceedingly durable, particularly given the ultra-lightweight materials that the system is comprised of.

Salomon S Lab Modular Shorts System used by the author: boxer base layer, 4″ top layer, and integrated belt. Image taken after 2 running seasons (or approximately 4000 miles (6500 km) or 400h of use over 3-6 boxer layers and 1-2 top layers). The base layer shown has been laundered about 60-70 times.

use

The parts of the S Lab Modular shorts system that I use are the boxer base layer, the 4″ top (vanity) layer, and, for racing and long runs, the integrated belt. I have logged over 4000 miles or about 400 hours of mountain trail running in this shorts system and have laundered the individual elements up to about 60-70 times in a standard european-style washing machine (Bosch Axiss).

Running conditions have generally been in temperatures from about 40 F to about 85 F with generally low humidity (<50% rel., typically <20% rel.). Although I expect that the shorts system will perform similarly in more humid environments, I have no direct experience with these shorts in high humidity (>50 rel.) conditions.

experience

Long-term experience with the system echoes my previous review:

“An “uber” comfortable, flexible, and high performance shorts system for trail running and racing.”

The comfort of this system is outstanding which means that one never actually thinks about the shorts while running. They go on, stay in place, and essentially disappear. The base layer articulations provide excellent support whilst being very lightweight and breathable. The top layer (or vanity layer) is so light and breathable that it is very much just what it is intended to be- a vanity layer. If not for social norms, one could run in just the base layer.

Boxer base layer after two running seasons of use. Still very comfortable and soft. Hem-less hems show minimal wear and a very small amount of fraying.

Close-up of the boxer base layer showing the extent of fraying on the hem-less hems- surprisingly very little.

Area on the front edge of the waist of the boxer base layer after two seasons of running showing delamination of the “sticky” silicone “stripes”. This is the only area where the “stripes” have delaminated. The delamination has not affected the performance of the shorts in any noticeable way.

After trying the 6″ variant, I have opted for the 4″ top layer with the boxer base layer. This selection is the most minimal pairing of the modular system and doesn’t try to provide anything other than functional support and a bit of protection. Initially I used the 6″ top layer and found it to be too long and then found the 4″ top layer to be too short. After extended use of the 4″variant I have now converted entirely to this length as it really does disappear and not interfere with any running activity yet provides sufficient coverage and protection.

4″ top layer after two running seasons of use. With the exception of a bit of stretch-out of the elastic waist sections, the top layer is fully intact and continues to perform to expectation.

Close-up of waist area on 4″ top layer showing absence of fraying and no delamination of the silicone “stripes”.

The other options in the system include compression support base layers (both “exo” and conventional) and longer form factors for top layer (up to 9″). These other options attempt to provide additional functionality and protection neither of which I have found to be necessary or efficacious. I suggest that one stick with the minimal system until which time that there are data that support the utility of compression wear for athletic endeavor. At this juncture the entire compression wear industry is based on hype and conjecture. See Aschwanden’s book for a full review of the efficacy of compression wear and compression technology in sports. I still do not understand the recent trend for “basketball” length shorts for running.I don’t understand them for use in basketball as well so perhaps I missing something.

The durability of this super lightweight system has been surprising given how little fabric there is. I was concerned about the durability of the hem-less hems and the grippy silicone “stripes” at the waist, thigh, and in other strategic places. Both of these features have held up well over this two year period and the only noticeable degradation is with limited delamination of some of the silicone “stripes” and a small amount of fraying at the hem-less hems. Otherwise the system is entirely intact and remains as comfortable as when new. Even after over 60 launderings, the layers are comfortable and have not lost any function and the fabrics have stayed soft to the touch.

Although I have only used the boxer base layer and the 4″ top layer, it is pointed out that since similar materials are used in the other variants in the system it is expected that similar comfort and durability will be experienced.

Modular integrated belt

I regularly use the integrated belt for longer runs and longer races and find that it provides sufficient carrying capacity for 30-50 km training runs and for supported 30-50 km races in the mountains. With the highly stretchable pockets I can load sufficient calories and water for a good 4-5 hour jaunt through the mountains at aerobic training pace. Add with some protection (light windbreaker (S Lab Light jacket), long sleeve shirt, warm beanie hat, and gloves) in case the weather turns and you are entirely sufficient. I no longer use a vest unless it is on an adventure (typically off-piste) run where additional equipment is necessary (e.g. traction devices, heavier clothing, etc.).

Salomon S Lab Modular Belt after two running season of use. Great carrying capacity, comfort, and flexibility.

Although designed to be integrated with the base layer via a series of three snap attachments at front and rear, I find that the belt is sufficiently secure that one does not have to use the snaps if this is preferred. It also means that the integrated belt can be used with other set-ups beyond the modular system.

price

As I explained in the initial impressions review, the S Lab Modular shorts system can appear to be expensive at first glance. But I noted then and have adhered to an approach that makes the system much less expensive than it would appear. Since the top layer is essentially just a cover-up for the base layer (it never really touches the body and rarely gets moist with sweat) it can be used numerous times prior to laundering. In addition, even if the top layer did get “crusty” it is easily rinsed out and will dry in less than 30 minutes (at least here in a low humidity western US environment). As a result of this, I will use the top layer for 3-5 runs before laundering it. Since the base layer is in direct contact with one’s body these are laundered after single use. I have six base layers but only a couple of top layers. The base boxer layer is $60 US and the top layer is similarly priced and therefore a “single” short system is $120 US (this is actually less than the pice of the prior  S Lab Sense short ($150 US) that was replaced with the modular line). Add to this that you actually get 3 shorts by buying three base layers and one top layer for a total cost of $240 US, or $80 US/”short” which is competitive with other high quality, high technology shorts currently being offered.

bottom line

A very comfortable and highly durable trail running short system that offers a wide range of options to suit individual needs.

Salomon S Lab Ultra – Final Update- 2500+ km and still going

I reviewed the Salomon S Lab Ultra trail shoe last July at about 1000 km of use. The shoe was performing well across the board and was stacking up to be better than the excellent S Lab Sense Ultra that proceeded it. The fit, stability, and comfort were superior to any Salomon shoe that I have used. The SensiFit “stability”  straps that were initially considered overkill or gimmicky have been found to be highly functional in truly technical terrain. The only downside to the shoe was the weight- it weighs more than the S Lab Sense Ultra by almost 10%. But I have never specifically noticed the increased weight and perhaps that is because of the slightly improved fit, increased stability, and overall superior comfort of the S Lab Ultra when compared to the Sense Ultra.

Salomon S Lab Ultra after about 2500 km of trail use. An old friend ready to retire.

This post will document exactly how well the S Lab Ultra has held up for use exceeding 2500 kms- the bottom line: exceedingly well!

use

I have used the S Lab Ultra for a wide variety of training and racing. These uses include 10-13 h of weekly trail running on 50/50 (technical/smooth) trails in the Northern Rocky Mountains, many 1 hour bounding sessions up steep terrain, many lactate threshold (LT) and VO2max interval sessions in hill repeat mode, many LT and VO2max interval sessions on rolling terrain at and exceeding critical velocity, numerous trail races from 20 km to 42 km, and a little bit of road running*.

The S Lab Ultra has performed outstandingly in all of these uses and particularly in steep, loose climbs and descents. The SensiFit “straps” do a great job of stabilizing the foot in loose conditions and allow for noticeably more traction and control. The shoe has been an all-around performer.

I have just now retired these shoes. Although they are still performing, I feel a bit less traction on downhills due to lateral heel wear and rather than go down I have started a new pair for the season.

It’s remarkable that there are any lugs left but the lateral heels are essentially gone after 1200 km or so of mostly steep, rocky downhills.

upper

With the exception of the S Lab Sense Ultra, I have found that trail running shoes typically wear out somewhere on the upper first- developing a hole and allowing debris into the shoe and thereby making the shoe not useable. In the case of the S Lab Ultra (as in the predecessor S Lab Sense Ultra), the upper has been incredibly durable. Only in the last 500 kms have any holes developed and those that have are very small and have not allowed debris into the shoe. The following are a few images of the various areas where holes have developed or abrasion has begun to compromise the upper.

It is apparent that the substantial polymer overlays used in S Lab Ultra have increased the durability of the upper as these overlays both protect the underlying fabric and limit the extent to which a hole can grow. This is perhaps not a primary intended use of the overlays but it certainly has worked out that way. With the exception of the S Lab Sense Ultra, the uppers of other S Lab shoes without these more extensive overlays have worn out much earlier due to large holes.

The fit has remained “ultra”-comfortable throughout the life of the shoe. The shoes have become very much an extension of my foot and essentially disappear from my thoughts while on technical terrain allowing a total focus on foot placement and rep-rate.

midsole

This is likely the most remarkable experience with these shoes- the midsole is just not loosing it’s cushioning effect or rock protection. Although certainly less than a new pair, the midsole comfort is still there and still allows for long runs with no concern for foot comfort. In addition the ProFeel Film rock protection is entirely intact and performs as well at 2500 kms as it did when new, although exhibiting a bit less longitudinal stiffness. The S Lab Sense Ultra midsole and rock protection began to breakdown somewhere around 2000 kms- excellent performance but this shoe is even better.

outsole

The outsole has been similarly durable and the Premium Wet Traction ContraGrip compound has performed well throughout in both wet and dry conditions. With the exception of lateral heel and forefoot wear, the lugs are still providing excellent grip across the board. At 2500 kms this is nothing but remarkable in my experience.

This use works out to about $0.12/mile ($0.07/km) which, with the exception of the S Lab Sense Ultra 2017, is about a factor two better than any other shoe that I have used.

issues

None, yes none! I put these shoes on and have run over 1500 miles in them and never once had to deal with an issue, discomfort, or compromise.

bottom line

An outstandingly durable, high performance trail shoe that will not disappoint. Given that the 2019 replacement S Lab Ultra 2 has only minor changes (it appears that Salomon have only removed the forward-most SensiFit strap and left everything else alone) one can expect a similar experience with the new model.   Some have noted that the last is a bit narrow so try these shoes on to ensure that the “narrowness” is acceptable. The Salomon S Lab Ultra is highly recommended.

*(Although I will run distances greater than 50 km in training, I do not race ultras anymore. I find the GI issues to be not only annoying for a competitive runner but, more importantly, I have the basis to assert that these GI issues are unhealthy. So no more ultra races for me.)

Training for the Uphill Athlete – Review – a new milestone in quality and thoroughness in a training guide for the endurance athlete

summary

The book Training for the New Alpinism by Scott Johnston and Steve House set new standards for thorough, science and coaching-based training advice for alpinists and endurance athletes alike. Although focused on fast and light alpinism (aka “new” alpinism), Johnston’s background as a coach in cross country skiing permeated the book and, as a result, much of the book could be easily applied to other endeavors- like cross country skiing, mountain running, and ski mountaineering (SkiMo). With support from Patagonia as publisher, a large emphasis was placed on clear, high quality, information-dense graphics that were far superior to anything else available at the time. I highly recommended this book when it was published and continue to do so today.

Enter this new volume from Johnston and co-authors Steve House and Kilian Jornet that is focused on mountain running, ultra running, and  SkiMo. Along with the same science and coaching-based guidance, similarly superior graphics, a unique focus on strength development, and an excellent handbook to developing your own training plan, “Training for the Uphill Athlete” represents a new milestone in quality and thoroughness in a training guide for the endurance athlete.

In this book one will find a nicely presented approach to training for “uphill” endurance sports such as mountain running and SkiMo. Throughout, the authors provide a scientific and/or coaching-based foundation for the specific training programs being described. Of particular note are the sections on ATP production and lactate metabolism- the best presentation of this material that I have been exposed to. All of this gives the reader the basis for (or a starting point for) development of a personal training “philosophy”- something that is critical to the success of any training regimen. As is pointed out frequently in the book, each individual presents a unique combination of physiology, biomechanics, life situation, and personality. Provided with a basic foundational approach and the specific tools needed to enable successful, progressive training , the reader is well positioned to be able to design and execute upon a training program that is aligned with his or her abilities, time, commitment, and goals.

The overarching mantras laced through the material are:

aerobic base development, “progression, progression, progression”, and the critical importance of substantial integrated strength training elements

Too many athletes and recreationalists ramp training up too quickly, incorporate intensity too soon, suffer injury, and, potentially, burnout. By properly progressing training load and intensity and integrating strength sessions into the program such “training errors” can be largely avoided. These themes are regularly brought forward and discussed throughout the book and recommendations are provided to help the reader incorporate appropriate progressions and strength programs.

Although of limited value, the book is punctuated by sidebar stories and opinions from representative uphill athletes- both elite level and some well-known sub-elite athletes. I find these individual essays to be more of a hinderance to the authors otherwise successful goal to provide clear guidance but I know that many find such stories inspirational.

Also included are “Kilian’s Notes”- short sections where Kilian describes his training history, training methods, and some specific workouts. Again, I find these of limited value as they are coming from an athlete who has been in intensive endurance training since he was 13 years old, with a 90+ VO2max, mental fortitude that is similarly off the charts, and has raced thousands of times. Having trained with athletes with some of these attributes, I can say that what they do is not particularly relevant even to those with relatively high VO2max and long histories with training for endurance sport. If you have ever competed against or trained with someone with a 90+ VO2max you will know what I mean. I suggest that one take these Kilian missives as just that- an entertaining peek into what such an extraordinary and accomplished athlete does and not a prescription for anyone else. Unfortunately there is no warning to this effect in the book.

I have found little to disagree with in this book with the exception of the science fiction provided on “fat adaptation” and a “hook-line-and-sinker” devotion to the persistent hunting theory as a basis for understanding human endurance abilities. But these are minor items and thankfully nutrition is not a focus of the book so it is easy to let these go and concentrate on all of the truly valuable information and presentation in the book.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who is interested in understanding fundamental endurance training concepts, evolving a personal approach based on these concepts, and developing a reliable, flexible training plan that will, with consistency and commitment, lead to success and goal achievement in endurance sport.

DETAILED review

Clearly the vast majority of the material in “Training for the Uphill Athlete” is of high quality with valiant attempts to align current science and coaching-based experience into the presented training guidance and training plan development. There are, however, a few areas where unfounded or not fully founded concepts are presented as “fact”. I’ll cover these along with a more detailed look at the author’s proposed training program synthesis and associated training plan development guidance.

Chapter 2 “Physiology of Endurance”

This is an excellent chapter that presents a clear and engaging discussion with excellent graphical representations of the  metabolic, physiologic, and biomechanic factors that lead to endurance. The concept of the lactate “vacuum cleaner” is very useful in helping one understand the processes taking place that will lead to enhanced endurance performance. All of this leads to the statement of the Uphill Athlete Training Philosophy:

“You will never maximize your endurance potential without first maximizing your basic aerobic capacity (AeT)”.

If one were to take just a single thing from the book then this would be that thing. How you get there is covered in the rest of the book but absorbing the reality of this statement is fundamental to founding a training approach for endurance sport.

There are a couple of sections in this chapter that I think are in need of criticism. Although neither of these criticisms affect the sound training advice being given, they do represent areas where the reader needs to be vigilant in questioning everything that is stated and to not accept outright some of the proposed mechanisms. These issues are in the areas of the “Persistence Hunting” theory of human evolution and “fat adaptation”.

In the introduction to Chapter 2 “The Physiology of Endurance”, the authors end the  first section summarizing the popular “persistence hunting theory” of human evolution with the following:

“We are the product of an evolutionary heritage that has predisposed us to endurance”.

Although giving some latitude in the text to this being a theory, this final sentence has no substantial support in the form of conclusive (or even indicative) scientific process. There exist other competing theories and interpretations of what scant evidence there is that would allow any determination of how we, as homo (sapiens), evolved. The theory of Persistence Hunting remains an unproven, although appealing, postulate that will likely never be founded by data and analysis.  This is affirmed even in the reference that the authors provide to support their conclusive statement:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/23227131_The_Relevance_of_Persistence_Hunting_to_Human_Evolution

David Carrier formulated the theory in 1984 and it has been “generally accepted”- how this has come to pass I have no idea but is nonetheless emblematic for what is happening in the “soft” sciences as it concerns unsupported conclusive statements and “generally accepted” hogwash.

For entertainment it is worthwhile to listen to a humorous short podcast by Scott Carrier (David’s brother and a former NPR “storyist”) that documents David’s and Scott’s attempt at putting the theory to work and run down some Pronghorn Antelope in Wyoming. This is a re-broadcast of a story Scott did for NPR in 1984. Look for the episode “Running After Antelope” on 3/19/2015 at his podcast website here:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/running-after-antelope/id972388330?i=1000338087072&mt=2

Moving on to the “fat adaptation” material, the authors present some data on page 63 that shows point data for %fat and %carbohydrate use as a function of %max heart rate for three individuals with supposedly different training backgrounds- a high intensity intervals-focused athlete, a “well-trained” endurance athlete, and an elite cross country skier. Concern number one is that the authors provide no reference for this data so that the efficacy of the testing could be checked. One has no idea if these data were ever peer-reviewed by experts or if the data are published. Using unpublished data is not appropriate for supporting generalized conclusions published in a book. Concern number two centers around the relevance of cross sectional data on individuals to any generalized advice. Without an understanding of many other factors (some confounding) that will influence the results shown, these data really have no scientific basis. They are cherry-picked graphs used to support a point being made in the text- something that is not acceptable. Use of representative peer-reviewed data from published references is the only acceptable alternative and even this type of data can be very deficient in this field of study. Without longitudinal data as well as data on individual enzymatic profiles (profiles which are temporal) there is no ability to put any generalized interpretation on what is presented. This is not to say that the arguments presented by the authors cannot be supported, just that they do not provide the appropriate references to peer-reviewed publications- an unfortunate oversight.

The subject of “fat adaptation” is often confused with the low carbohydrate high fat (LCHF) diet cult literature some of which the authors reference (e.g. Volek’s work). Here the authors use a simplified version of a graph from one such publication by Volek (who is one of the LCHF cult leaders). This is Figure 2.10 on page 62. The graph shows what apparently are average peak fat oxidation rates for two populations of subjects- “well-trained fat adapted” and “well-trained less-well-fat-adapted” (whatever these descriptions mean?). Searching out the reference (which was not given in the text but is as follows: “Metabolic characteristics of keto-adapted ultra-endurance runners”, Volek, et al., Metabolism – Clinical and Experimental, 65 (2016) 100-110.) and critically reviewing the article we find that all is not well. Firstly, this study is aimed at determining the difference in fat oxidation rate of well-trained (supposedly elite) athletes as a function of %VO2max with two populations- one that habitually consumes a high carbohydrate diet and another that habitually consumes a high fat-low carbohydrate diet (aka “keto-adapted”). The study is about the potential effects of diet on fat adaptation, not fat adaptation. Yet the authors are using the data to support a point in the text about how important it is to become “fat adapted” by lots of aerobic training (sometimes in a fasted state). Secondly, the graph presented in the book does not show the point data. Rather, the data are presented as large ovals with some whiskers on it. No explanation of the graph is given other than to point at a difference that the authors are using to make a point in the text. This is very poor writing and has no place in an otherwise science-oriented book. The figure from the actual publication shows large circles with whiskers as well as all of the point data from the individual subjects of the study. The text of the published article indicates that the circles represent the average value of peak fat oxidation and the whiskers are the 95% confidence intervals (CI). Further review indicates that the peak fat oxidation point data are generated at values of  %VO2max ranging from a low of about 38% to a high of about 81%. In the publication there is a companion graph that shows the %VO2max at the peak fat oxidation value for each of the study participants. Their data show that the LCHF group reaches peak fat oxidation values at higher %VO2max values (higher HRs) and the authors further argue that these LCHF subjects can therefore exercise at higher intensity whilst burning more fat than the high carbohydrate group, i.e. that their aerobic threshold (AeT) is higher because of the LCHF diet. Yet the book authors never even allude that the differences they are pointing to are supposedly based on differences in diet. In fact, the data and analysis (if you choose to put any credence in the dicey conclusions from such a limited and flawed study) partially unfound the argument that the book authors are making in the associated text. The authors of the published article propose that one can only maximize AeT by combining both substantial aerobic base work with a LCHF diet, whereas, contrarily, the book authors contend that AeT can be maximized by substantial aerobic base work in an often fasted or glycogen depleted state- no specific diet required.  These assertions are based on a definition of aerobic threshold HR as that HR where carbohydrate and fat are being consumed equally (the 50/50 point). Thirdly, the data in the Volek article is, again, cross sectional and lacks important data on enzymatic profiles and other potentially confounding variables; this is all in addition to the self-reported diet data (lowest quality of data). Fourthly, the authors of the published article assert that the study subjects are “elite” and use a definition of “elite” that I (and anyone else who understands the nature of elite performance) have significant disagreement with (e.g. a finish within 10% of the winner is definitely not elite). I suggest you read the article yourself as well as the many peer-reviewed published articles that have various levels of disagreement with Volek et al. One such article is:

Burke et al., Science 362, 781–787 (2018)*

There is no more defective literature than that of the field of nutrition (perhaps such defectiveness is only exceeded by the literature in the field of psychology) and add this to the already deficient situation in the literature in the field of exercise physiology and you have the recipe for gibberish cake coated with statistical frosting. Much of the data is observational and self-reported and therefore represents the weakest of all data types. And what about replication? Replication? Replication is a rare bird in these fields, yet it forms the essential starting point in the hard sciences. I do not want to minimize the difficulty associated with studies of the human body and mind as these difficulties are substantial, but the fact that something is hard to do does not give one license to make unfounded conclusions as is rife in these fields.

chapter 3 “The METHODOLOGIES of Endurance Training”

This is another excellent chapter that attempts to put some structure on how one might go about training and recovering to maximize performance in endurance sport. The primary issue I have with this chapter is that the authors present yet another, slightly different, intensity zone system to add to the confusion facing anyone who decides to get serious about training. While functional within the context of the programs described in the book, the presented zone system differs in number and range with other widely used systems (like Friel’s). I had hoped that this book might be the first to present intensity zones in the much simplified format suggested by Seiler in the past couple of years. Seiler argues that there are three zones for endurance training- aerobic base, lactate threshold, and VO2max. Theses zones are defined by the aerobic threshold (AeT) and the lactate threshold (LT or anaerobic threshold (AnT))- two easily measurable physiologic markers (the authors also use these markers to assign intensity zones, but choose to develop a system with 5 or 6 zones). Yes, these markers may move about by a few HR beats depending on individual exposure to training and other stressors, but they provide the only reliable basis for setting up a functional intensity zone system. The Seiler-proposed three zone system has a zone 1 that is defined by HRs at AeT and below (aerobic base training), a zone 2 that is defined by HRs at LT to -5% LT (lactate threshold training is at the high end of this zone and tempo work is at the low end) and a zone 3 defined by HRs at LT to +5% LT (VO2max work). No training is to be done outside of these three zones. This is essentially what the authors propose but just make it a bit more complicated by having other zones- zones that will not be used. I continue to lobby for the simplified three zone system.

The other issue with this chapter is the material on recovery where an ordinate list of the important recovery pathways is presented. I suggest that one read the book “Good to Go” by Christine Ashwanden. The author, a staff member at FiveThirtyEight, the well-known data-based journalism outfit, goes about using all the available data on efficacy of the many recovery methods and essentially debunks them all except sleep and floatation. Have a read- you will never foam roll or be massaged again! That is unless you want to take advantage of the placebo effect for mental issues.

chapter 4 “Monitoring your training”

This chapter does a great job at putting a framework around what an individual should be monitoring throughout a training plan, particularly as it relates to the potential for overtraining. This is an important subject and one that typically gets very little coverage in books on training for endurance sport. Yet overtraining is likely the single thing that derails or ends many careers in these sports. The material here is well placed and thoroughly presented.

chapter 5 “the application process: where theory meets reality”

Here the authors detail how to use their intensity zone system in a plan to maximize one’s aerobic base and then begin adding in high intensity work (tempo workouts, LT intervals, and VO2max intervals). Further reiteration of the importance of aerobic base capacity development is drilled throughout the chapter. It is difficult to come away from these first five chapters without the basis for a strong commitment to, first and foremost, ensure that your training includes a sufficient base period that allows for substantial aerobic base capacity development (and maximization for experienced, long term endurance athletes). This can take years to develop and it is pointed out that such longer term timeframes are an appropriate lens through which one should approach endurance training. It is refreshing to see this viewpoint as so many other training guides try to push shortcuts or supposedly “more efficient” ways to aerobic base development. Clearly there are no shortcuts and the physiologic processes that need to take place for maximization are on the “years-long” timescale. Absorbing this fact and incorporating this reality into one’s planning and goal setting will lead to a successful result rather than rushing the process into abject failure.

I applaud the authors for bringing uphill bounding to the fore in intensity sessions. This is a woefully overlooked tool for not only intensity workouts but in the development of specific strength and muscular endurance. Arthur Lydiard used hill bounding extensively in his training programs and cited how important this activity is in providing his athletes with the strength and power needed to perform on race day. Bee and I use uphill bounding with poles extensively in our training for cross country skiing with 2-a-week sessions from early August until the snow flies in late November. We find this work to be essential to high performance in skiing and I find it leads to great advantages in uphill sections in mountain running races. Bee similarly finds these bounding sessions as enabling for difficult kayak moves in powerful class IV and V whitewater.

chapter 6, 7, & 8
“strength training for the uphill athlete”
“General strength assessment and improvement”
“specific strength – training methods”

One of the features that distinguishes this book from the many others on endurance training is the integrative approach the authors take toward strength training. In the proposed training programs strength is not an “add-on” sub-activity or a “suggested” enhancement, it is at the core of the program and therefore strength is conceptually and actionably integrated into the training schedule.

Well placed arguments about how strength elements are critical to injury prevention as well as how properly designed strength elements ensure good technique and allow development of important specific strength capacity are provided and allow the reader to fully appreciate the importance of this area.

But founding a basis for strength is just the start. The authors provide a simple and straightforward plan for assessing your individual strength needs and then outline simple strength programs to address one’s deficiencies. We all have deficiencies (even the best of us) and attention to these will be critical to ensuring progression and, eventual, success with a training plan. For older athletes this section is of primary importance as detailed elsewhere on this site- strength is one of the “big three” limiters for performance as one ages. Sarcopenia does not sleep!

chapter 9, 10, & 11
“programming”
“transition period training”
“introduction to the base period”

These chapters detail out how one can go about developing an individual training plan. Understanding the essentials of training plan programming along with considerations for the very important transition period between seasons will enable the reader to put together an effective training plan and the knowledge of how this plan will inevitably be modified as one executes upon it.

Significant sections are devoted to understanding and properly programming the base period as this is the essential platform upon which any other endurance training is based. This base development then leads to additions of intensity all whilst a parallel strength program is being pursued.

The authors present a meso and microcycle process using the tried-and-true weekly focus approach that distributes work into base (B), intensity (I), recovery (R), specificity (S), taper (T), and goal (G) weeks. Bee and I have been using this system in one form or another since the late 70’s, with the exception of my experiments with “block periodization” in 2016 and 2017. We have had good success with this training plan protocol and con confidently recommend it. Now we have a book that we can recommend as well.

Chapters 12 & 13
“special considerations for SkiMo and ski mountaineering”
“special considerations for mountain running”

These two chapters elaborate upon some of the specific and unique aspects of the two sports and how to adjust your training to meet those unique needs. These sections are well written and provide valuable information for those just getting into these sports but the material is also valuable for even experienced competitors.

bottom line

A well written book that is worth your time and will pay back big dividends in successful endurance training so long as you make the commitment and ensure consistency.

 

*Some relevant quotes from the Burke article:

Short-term fat adaptation strategies, or even long-term adaptation to ketogenic LCHF diets (80% fat, <50 g of CHO/day), which can increase normal rates of fat oxidation by two or three times (21, 22), are limited in application to a small range of sporting events in which utilization is low enough for muscle energy to be provided by fat oxidation (21, 23). To date, it appears that protocols that substantially increase fat oxidation also decrease metabolic flexibility by reducing CHO substrate pools and/or the ability to rapidly oxidize them. The bottom line is that when elite athletes train for and compete in most sporting events, CHO fuels are the predominant and critical substrate for the working muscles, and the availability of CHO (22, 24), rather than fat, wins gold medals. We propose that the increased rates of fat oxidation observed after endurance training and “train-low” strategies (see When less is more) are a proxy for an increase in mitochondrial density; for competition success, this machinery is best utilized by harnessing it to enhance the oxidation of CHO-based fuels.

21. J. S. Volek et al., Metabolism 65, 100–110 (2016).

22. L. M. Burke et al., J. Physiol. (London) 595, 2785–2807 (2017).

23. S. D. Phinney, B. R. Bistrian, W. J. Evans, E. Gervino, G. L. Blackburn, Metabolism 32, 769–776 (1983).

24. J. A. Hawley, J. J. Leckey, Sports Med. 45, S5–S12 (2015).

Within their repertoire of training nutrition strategies, athletes can now include practices that augment adaptive processes in skeletal muscle; these include commencing training with low exogenous CHO availability (fasting overnight and/or withholding CHO during a session) or the more potent trainload strategy of deliberately commencing selected training sessions with lowered muscle glycogen stores (e.g., using a first session to deplete glycogen and then training for a second time after withholding CHO to prevent glycogen restoration) (29, 30). Although studies consistently report augmented cellular responses as a result of trainload strategies, the translation to performance enhancement has been less clear (29, 30). Early investigations failed to detect superior performance outcomes; this was attributed to the overemphasis of such sessions within the training program and their resultant impairment of training intensity (44). These sessions need to be appropriately placed into a periodized program to complement high quality training (7). A recent, clever sequencing of practices (Fig. 1) integrates a performance-promoting session and an adaptation-focused session while adding the benefits of a prolonged increase in exercise-stimulated cellular signaling and posttranscriptional regulation during glycogen-depleted recovery and exercise (45). In subelite populations at least, better integration of train-low and train-high sessions into the training sequence (Fig. 1) has been associated with superior performance compared with the same training undertaken with normal CHO availability (46). So far, however, this does not seem to be the case in studies involving elite populations (22, 47), although it is often incorporated into real-world training sessions (48). Although further studies are needed, part of the challenge in advancing this area of research is the lack of agreement with regard to the terminology and implementation of the practices involved; we have tried to address this in a separate commentary (7).

29. S. G. Impey et al., Sports Med. 48, 1031–1048 (2018).

30. J. D. Bartlett, J. A. Hawley, J. P. Morton, Eur. J. Sport Sci. 15, 3–12 (2015).

44. W. K. Yeo et al., J. Appl. Physiol. 105, 1462–1470 (2008).

7. L. M. Burke et al., Int. J. Sport Nutr. Exerc. Metab. 28, 451–463 (2018).

45. S. C. Lane et al., J. Appl. Physiol. 119, 643–655 (2015).

46. L. A. Marquet et al., Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 48, 663–672 (2016).

47. K. D. Gejl et al., Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 49, 2486–2497 (2017).

48. T. Stellingwerf, Int. J. Sport Nutr. Exerc. Metab. 22, 392–400 (2012).

Also, a good read on the lamentable situation in science today:

The Inevitable Evolution of Bad Science:

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/09/the-inevitable-evolution-of-bad-science/500609/?single_page=true

 

 

The Road to Beitostolen – Course Profile Analysis and Training Update

As discussed in a previous post, the courses for the Beitostolen 2019 Masters World Championships (Masters World Cup (MWC)) are very well documented and described due to the homologation certificates provided by the Organizing Committee in Beitostolen. The existence of the homologation certificates is primarily due to the fact that FIS World Cup races are held at the Beitostolen complex and this requires detailed homologation certification by the FIS. As a result, the organizers have substantial profile data for the trails/tracks within the complex. However, the Beitostolen organizing committee have also gone a further step and obtained full FIS certification for each of the three loops that will be utilized for the 2019 MWC- courses that are not used for World Cup events. This has provided reliable, detailed data on the courses for the competitions- a very good thing!

What is missing however is actual continuous profiles of each of the courses that are made up of various combinations of the three certified loops. With this in mind, I have “knitted” together the loop data for each of the primary loop distances- the 10 km course and the 15 km course. This allows one to better observe the “flow” of the courses and to develop individual strategies for racing. I have also compared the Beitostolen courses with the courses in Klosters (MWC 2017) and Minneapolis (MWC 2018).

Presented below are the 10 km and 15 km courses for the Beitostolen MWC plotted utilizing normalized elevation in feet. As these data are taken visually from the provided profile images, the race course profiles represent a best-effort transcription to digital data which may have some minor errors. However, the course flow and magnitude of climbs are all accurately represented.

There is one climb in particular that should be noted- the climb at about the 6.8 km distance mark in the 15km course (on the Urban Round or “B” Loop in the C-B-A loop sequence). This climb is only in the 15 km, 30 km, and 45 km races.

The profile provided by the organizers shows that this hill climbs from about 783 m to about 820 m (37 m/121 feet) over the 2050 m to about 2300 m “B” Loop distance marks (a total of 250m distance- about half of the total climb distance). This yields an average grade of about 15% for this 250 m portion of the climb and, based on analysis of the other loop profiles, represents the most challenging hill for the competitions. The hill continues another 200 m but significantly decreases grade for the reminder of the climb (to about the 2500 m “B” Loop distance mark) with the exception of a “bump” at the very end. The provided homologation certificate shows the average grade for the entire climb to be 9.1% with a section as high as 21.5% (not sure where this steep section is but it may be at the very top of the climb). Although not a particularly long climb, the 15% average grade for the first 250m and then a continued, albeit gradual (about 3.5% average), climb for another 200m seems that it will be challenging, particularly for classic skiers. Combining this with the 21% grade of unknown length and location (this will probably be a herringbone or Klaebo “Klomp” for classic skiers) adds additional challenge. For freestyle skiers it will not be as challenging a climb and might represent a good hill to put on a surge to break up a pack.

Course comparisons with past Masters world cups (2017 and 2018)

The 15 km and 10 km Beitostolen course profiles are presented below along with the profiles for the Klosters 2017 MWC. It is clear that for the 15 km courses the total climb is very similar between the the venues but the “flow” of the courses are not. The Klosters 10 km course is much more difficult than the Beitostolen 10 km course, with 125 m (410 feet) more climb and the different ‘flow” characteristic. The Klosters courses “notch” up to higher and higher elevation with no extended downhills until the very end- this makes these courses more difficult due to the lack of recovery between climbs. The Beitostolen courses should allow for fairly high speeds, conditions permitting.

Comparison of the Beitostolen 15 km and 10 km courses with the Minneapolis 2018 MWC courses shows exactly how “less difficult” the Minneapolis courses were. Firstly, primarily due to snow conditions, the Minneapolis courses were all shortened significantly. Uniquely, the 30 km and 45 km classic races were shortened due to a train blocking the course after the first lap. As a result the “15 km” course was 13 km, the “10 km” course was 6.5 km and the “30 km” course was 22 km (but would have been 28 km even if the train did not block the course). Secondly, there are no extended climbs in the Minneapolis courses and, although not shown here, the 30 km and 45 km courses had an entirely flat 5 km section in each 15 km lap. Thirdly, the total climb for each of the Minneapolis courses is significantly lower than for either the Beitostolen or Klosters courses- 30% to 50% less!

Note: the Minneapolis course profiles have been derived from GPS data taken during the competitions.

As far as preparations for the Beitostolen courses, it seems that a concentration on extended climbs at or about 10% average grade will do one well, particularly for classic skiers. Given the numerous steep sections, classic skiers should be practicing their herringbone skills as these steep sections appear to come frequently throughout both the 15 km and 10 km courses. Although the courses may ski differently to what the profile might suggest, having a good LT block of training prior to any peaking protocol will be of significant utility. An efficient herringbone will also be a welcome skill at heart rates above LT.

competition

Although registration is not yet closed after an extension from 31 January to 15 February, the M07 is again the largest group and many of the perennial medalists from the recent past as well as some competitive skiers moving up from the M06 category have registered. It looks like the classic fields will have the deepest competition but there are some excellent freestyle M07 skiers as well. Unfortunately a number of the past M07 freestyle medalists are not currently registered- hopefully they will in the next week.

Team Bumble Bee decided to go with a mix of techniques for Beitostolen- selecting the 15 km free and the 10 km and 30 km classic races. We are both committed to being well-rounded skiers and not focusing on just one technique. It makes life interesting and we get to mix it up with a different set of skiers for the free technique race.

training

Team Bumble Bee is in a final volume block of training prior to our peaking protocol. The first week of the block has 18-20 h of training but also significant intensity to ensure that the training load is sufficient for a maximal super compensation effect. After a few days of recovery, this block ends with a 30 km freestyle race with 600 m (1968 feet) of climbing at altitude (2000 m/6500 feet). This race course is very similar to the 30 km Beitostolen course (two 15 km courses), with similar steeps and downhills- should be a good simulation opportunity.

Bumble all alone and catching back after sipping a feed in the local 34 km downhill freestyle race.

We both had reasonable results in the local 34 km downhill freestyle race this past weekend, although the profile of the race does not suit our strengths of climbing and surges as there were essentially no climbs. The course is perfect for a large, powerful skier- physical traits that would not be used to describe Team Bumble Bee! But with enough effort the “bees” can be competitive.

Best of training to all of those (if any) who are reading this!

It’s All About the Vertical is back

Team Bumble Bee is still steadfastly working away at writing “Brave Enough – a Training Handbook for Masters Cross Country Skiers” and I initially thought that much of the training theory, planning, and execution presented on this blog would be used in the handbook. As we continue writing, we are finding that virtually everything is being re-written in one way or another. So I have restored all of the past content on this site and will continue to add to it as I have time, interest, or should an interesting subject come about. The re-writing has slowed the progress on the handbook but it is likely that perseverance will ultimately win out.

I know many have asked for access to past content here at It’s All About the Vertical- it is now provided and hopefully, going forward, some new content as well. Enjoy!

Why “Grit” is a Phony Term that is Irrelevant to Achievement

Note: I wrote this two years ago but never posted it for some reason. Having recently been exposed to additional discussion on the topic I have made minor updates and now post the piece here.

One sits astounded in the realization that someone has made-up a term, built a career upon this made-up term, writes a best-selling book on the pseudo-subject, and creates an entire field of pseudo-study- all without adding anything resembling a basic, reliable understanding of the (pseudo-) “thing”. Well, such is very much the case in the “work” of Angela Duckworth and her associates on the subject of the phony concept of “grit”.  After reading her recent book on “Grit” twice and delving into published “peer-reviewed” papers, I can find very little of value in pushing the concept of “grit” in any school, workplace, or sports setting.

Like the many diet cults that come and go with the seasons, “grit” has limited statistical relevance and, when critically tested, a durability on par with paint on a west facing wall in the US desert southwest. Similarly with diet cults, measurements of “grit” rely on individual self-perception and not quantitative, objective measurements (or even repeatable, testable observations). Such is the plight of the very difficult endeavor of research into the human body and mind. But these realities, just because they present significant limitations on conclusive observations, does not allow license for dissemination of unsupported assertions.

Most recently Duckworth is back-treading on the singular importance of “grit” in high achievement, claiming that others have misunderstood her and that there are character traits that are as, or more, important. Remember that traits cannot be learned and that the whole idea behind grit as a concept in teaching and achievement is that it can be learned- it is a skill. Sounds like a good deal of contradiction there, something that often happens when one overstates the importance of some variable or that such importance actually has no foundation- something that I think is the case for “grit”.

criticisims of “grit”

There is a growing body of criticism of “grit” as an identifiable, singular, so-called non-cognitive skill that is correlated with success and other positive outcomes. One of the more complete critical reviews is here and available free here. A summary of Duckworth’s response to the article is here.

The criticisms are many but the primary one (in addition to the obvious over-statements by Duckworth et al. of the effect of “grit” on success (which is particularly egregious in the popular book on the subject)) is a clear concern over the entire concept of “grit” being just the overblown hype of a research group falling into a “jangle fallacy” black hole- in part by not being fully cognizant of, and fluent in, the literature.

The “jangle fallacy” concern is based on the assertion that what one might refer to as “grit” is actually just another name for the well-developed concept of the personality trait know as “conscientiousness”, something intimately entangled with the even more fundamental notion of motivation. The important point here is that a trait is not a skill and much of what has been trumped-up about the importance of so-called “grit” is that it is a skill that can be learned. “Conscientiousness” or motivation are not things that have been found to be “learnable”. Rather, they are most likely a result of some combination of genetics and environment.

But Duckworth and her co-workers do not let any of this contain their zeal for spreading the concept of “grit” as a skill and their imperatives for blanketing the unknowing (and seemingly critical thinking-deficient) education profession with false hopes for fundamental, positive change to education paradigms (such as KIPP programs). I find the whole situation to be very lamentable. A similar situation is extant for the allied concept of the “growth mindset”, but I will not elaborate on that here.

I have always taken great exception to the efficacy of self-reported data of any type. Such data are unreliable, subject to significant bias, and represent data of the lowest quality- data that probably should not be collected in the first place, let alone be the basis for conclusive remarks. Recent extensive reviews of the validity of published research in Psychology found very low replication, something that I find to be self evident given the low reliability of much of the source data for many studies in this field.

Egalitarianism, the protestant work ethic, and teachings toward a path of success

There has been a general trend in recent decades in both popular literature and the highly defective research in the field of Psychology that describes a path to success that is paved with hard work along with a consistent application of effort toward a defined goal. The folklore goes on to attribute the overwhelming majority of any success to just these two factors, often ignoring, in large part, the environmental factors, timing, talent, and motivation also at play. Perhaps the most well known of these teachings is that summarized by Malcolm Gladwell in his very popular book Outliers. In the book Gladwell leans on the work of Ericsson and others and the uber-popular “10,000 hour rule” that is supposedly supported by Ericsson’s research. As asserted in a previous post on the “10,000 hour rule”:

“… ‘the rule’ provides that the development of an “expert” or “master” level of accomplishment requires a minimum of about 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” and that this improvement follows a linear growth rate. “Deliberate practice” is focused (perhaps structured) training where one consciously addresses weaknesses whilst maintaining (and possibly improving) strengths. The 10,000 hours works out to about 10 years of focused training before one can attain an “expert” or “master” level in the endeavor. ”

and further:

“The underlying supposition is that “nurture” super-dominates “nature”, i.e. as some would say “talent is over-rated”. The egalitarian basis of ‘the rule’ has resonated with a society that values a hard-work ethos that leads to success, something that is perhaps fundamental to any civil society. But reality is, in this case, something very different.”

The egalitarian hard-work ethos (and it’s direct connection with success that is espoused by Ericsson and others) that has been generally assimilated into US culture, has naturally lead to the growth of a well-documented meritocracy in the US (and elsewhere), and to the associated high societal value placed upon college degrees in general and those from certain institutions in particular (Ivy League institutions, Standford, Chicago, etc.). For many, the inculcation of the Protestant Work Ethic (PWE) in either straightforward (often via religious teachings) or subliminal ways, has played a fundamental role in their individual intellectual development. In my experience, the at-large adherence to the PWE in the US has lead to general acceptance of the concept that work will outdo talent. This is something that I have found to be unsupported in virtually all endeavors but particularly so in those areas of achievement requiring the highest levels of thought and concentration- areas like science and mathematics but also in more creativity-centeric fields like art and writing.

Given the societal importance placed on merit and the substantial parental and academic supporting structures that have come to be, it is no surprise to find a dysfunctional situation at the top of the achievement pyramid. Perhaps Walter Kirn best described this situation in his 2005 essay for The Atlantic Magazine on the subject of the US Meritocracy, where he summarizes his experience upon matriculation at Princeton:

“That’s why we were here; we all showed aptitude. Aptitude for showing aptitude, mainly. That’s what they wanted, so that’s what we delivered. A talent for nothing, but a knack for everything. Nobody told us it wouldn’t be enough.”

And Kirn is right- those “gritty” Baby Boomer graduates found that accruing various merit badges along the way in one’s education and career was not nearly enough. Being one such Baby Boomer Meritiocrat, I have had a front row seat observing my fellow Baby Boomers throughout a 30-year scientific and business career and in endurance sport at the elite levels. It became abundantly clear over the years that although the meritocracy can efficiently produce hard workers and that businesses, academic institutions, and sports development organizations can produce environments where hard work can flourish, there remains a paucity of true achievement- achievement that pushes for new knowledge, new products, and sports performances- work products that are of value, utility, and produce victory, respectively.

motivation- the fundamental basis for achievement

If there is one glaring and very consistent observation that I have made in elite-level endurance sport, world-recognized scientific research, and US business success, it is the dominating importance motivation, timing, and, in the case of sport and science, talent. In fact, that which many define as “hard work” oftentimes plays a minor role in the definition of the success being described. The “minor role” of hard work is not minor in terms of time or effort, but in terms of what has made the difference in attaining the success. I have have observed (and I expect that many who are reading this have as well) an overwhelming  majority of such successes to be a result of innate talent, timing (particularly in US business success), and intrinsic motivation on the part of the individual(s) associated with the success. The “hard work along with a consistent application of effort toward a defined goal” is necessary but significantly insufficient for any durable success. This has been recently documented in endurance, power, and combat sports by Issurin in a meta-analysis in the journal Sports Medicine the subject of which is defining prerequisites for demonstration of athletic achievement. Issurin, in his summary article, reviews available data that show (as quoted from the abstract of the article):

“Data pertaining to Olympic champions indicate that their superiority compared with other elite athletes is determined by high intrinsic motivation, determination, dedication, persistence, and creativity.”

The author additionally goes on to dispute the validity of the 10,000 hour rule as it relates to endurance, power, and combat sports. Rather, the data support that 3,000-7,000 hours of specialized training is sufficient to attain world-class standing for those endurance athletes that have high innate talent (e.g. high VO2 max, high lactate metabolism, and well suited biomechanics in the case of endurance athletes). As outlined above I see no difference in intrinsic motivation and the (derivative) terms determination, dedication, and persistence. So, although it is claimed in the article that each of these are separable traits, I propose that determination, dedication, and persistence all follow from the fundamental notion of intrinsic motivation.

Much of these approaches are informed by the egalitarian notion that asserts that hard work, independent of talent, is fundamentally important.

We all bring our own personal experience to the table when thinking about something like “grit” (as defined by Duckworth). Those who have made significant contributions to their fields of study are often viewed by those not internal to the work as being highly focused, dogged, and super-persistent. However, my experience is contrary to this view. In 30 years as a research scientist I have consistently observed the highest achievers of significant work to exhibit superior levels of open mindedness and curiosity- not necessarily a dogged focus on a single thing for many years. In fact numerous significant contributions that I have been witness to have been realized only when the researcher, after vigorous initial work, has put the subject and study aside for some period and pursued something else only to return to the initial area of study with new and different knowledge, mental models, and, in some cases, new tools and new colleagues. This sort of investigative process requires substantial open mindedness, high levels of innate curiosity, and accretion of numerous fundamental platforms for thinking in different ways. These sorts of attributes have, in my experience, a singular underlying driver- motivation.

Motivation has consistently been the differentiator between the high achievers of substance* and the rest. If one chooses to use the word “grit” to describe a trait (not a skill) then “grit” might be best defined as the actualization of motivation. If one is motivated then they will likely appear to be “gritty”. This is particularly the case when work on a given subject reaches a phase where the active work is a matter of following through on gathering and analyzing data once the breakthrough thought process has been achieved. In addition there are data that show how motivation appears to be highly influenced by chemical reactions in the brain, i.e. high motivation is correlated with high production of L-dopamine and a native, large set of dopamine receptors. Perhaps such inherited biochemistry is super-dominant and controls the level of motivation within an individual. It does help to explain why individuals with the same upbringing, environment, and opportunity can have vastly different levels of motivation and therefore achievement.

the fallacy of “grit”

Grit is not a “thing”, a skill, or a “breakthrough”- it is a made-up term that seems to be best utilized in justifying funding for defective research with substandard statistical power, hoodwinking educational institutions into false hopes for increasing achievement, and for selling books full of unsupportable claims. Unfortunately, the faulty concepts of “grit” as a skill are being thrust into an unwitting education community desperately looking for a solution to current issues with achievement. The application of the so-called “concepts” of “grit” do nothing to help individuals develop as substantive thinkers or achievers. “Grit” is irrelevant to achievement and the use of concepts of “grit” may even hinder such development by over-emphasizing “the doing of something” rather than allowing for a focus on critical thinking prior to and during the substantial work involved in making progress. Rather, looking toward a better understanding of the origins of motivation will much better serve mankind than focusing time, energy, and dollars on the falsity that is “grit”.

It is common to see researchers take great effort to produce data that clarifies a poorly-constructed null hypothesis, leading to negative critical review and eventual realization (or perhaps not) that the experiments are misguided due to a lack of critical thinking and discernment at the outset. Unfortunately the field of Psychology is not providing rigorous critical review and therefore allows for the publication of unfounded results, conclusions, and claims. This is how I think the concept of “grit” came about… and why, unfortunately, it has continued to flourish.

*high achievers can be sub-divided into (at least) two categories- those who just achieve something and those who achieve something of substance.