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.

The Road to Beitostolen – looking forward to deep competition

Team Bumble Bee is well into preparations for the 2019 World Masters Championships in Beitostolen, Norway in early March. It is always challenging to have just one  “A” race so late in the season. The required focus makes other, earlier, races less important but these races are still critical to the necessary progression to ensure a peak performance. Balancing the race schedule with training whilst not getting “stale” is the goal for the 2018-2019 season. Arriving at the start line in Norway fast, fit, and fresh- that is the overarching goal.

We are excited about the races in Norway because we are also hopeful that more high-level competition will show up given the location right in the center of the cross country skiing mecca that is Scandinavia. Deeper competition, particularly in the women’s fields, will be a welcome thing. Team Bumble Bee is focused on competing against the best skiers in the world- it is what drives us and motivates us.

We’re monitoring the Datasport MWC entrants list to decide which races to enter base on the competition- we’ll enter the races that have the stiffest competition. At the 2018 MWC in Minneapolis, for example, none of the top M07 skaters showed up but most of the top M07 classic skiers did, so I entered only the classic races. Hopefully we will see strong M07 fields in both techniques so that a skate race might be part of the series for me. For the F06’s, we just hope that some strong competitors who do not usually compete in F06 MWC show up given the venue location. Otherwise things may be a bit boring for Bee.

training, tweaks, and time trials

For the past three years I have been utilizing a “block periodization” protocol for training. This protocol is useful for advanced, long-time endurance athletes who wish to attempt to break off a performance plateau and further maximize their output in races. For me it works well but results in a rather monastic existence as all intensity workouts are completed alone since there are few others that take this route. Bee likes to do intensity with others and there are very few “racers” here in the Sun Valley area that actually train to race with structured interval workouts. So she has been stuck these last couple of years doing most of her intensity alone as well.  As a result, this year I have decided to return to a “traditional” or mixed periodization protocol that, after a base period, utilizes numerous four week cycles that include volume focus (V), intensity focus (I), or recovery focus (R) weeks to build toward a peaking period prior to “A” races (note: V+ and I+ are peak weeks for volume and intensity, respectively). This will allow Bee and me to do intensity workouts together and challenge one another in head-to-head repeats or by giving one another “head starts” and then try to catch during the interval.  Another technique to make things interesting in mis-matched pairs is to allow the slower person to use a fast wax to help them keep up. It is fun and makes the intensity sessions just that much more enjoyable- yes enjoyable! We love intensity and look forward to our twice-weekly sessions. We see way too much of an attitude of dread on the part of many other athletes when it comes to intensity. If something is perceived as “dreadful” it will likely be dreadful. Better to take a positive posture on something as critical to racing success as intensity sessions!

My annual training plan for the 2018/19 season is shown below and shows the traditional periodization through a series of 4-week “build” blocks leading up to our only “A” race this year- the World Masters Championships in Beitostolen. Norway in early March.

2018-2019 training plan. For a larger format view, ctrl-click on the image and select “open in new window” and then click the image.

In addition to the volume (V), intensity (I), and recovery (R) week indications, there is a bit more detail in this plan than I have shown in the past. The first additional detail is a row which shows targeted total hours of weekly training  and the second is a row showing estimated “intensity minutes” for the training week. “Intensity minutes” are the amount of time spent doing specific intensity workouts and are derived from a percentage of the total hours of training for a given week. We utilize suggested intensity proportions that Friel has found to work well with advanced athletes. Presented below is his chart for determining intensity time percentages as a function of what type of period one is executing upon. Time at intensity (intensity minutes) includes rest periods for whatever structure you are using. For instance a “lactate threshold” (LT) workout of 6 X 8 min with 3 min rest has 48 minutes at threshold work and 15 minutes of rest, so the total “intensity minutes” is 63 minutes. The weekly intensity sessions are designed to align with the percentages of intensity minutes in the table below.

Friel’s chart for determining intensity proportions as a function of type of period in a structure, periodized training protocol. See blog post here.

Friel has developed a system of periodization that includes base periods, two build periods, a peak period, and, finally, a race period. Build 2 is probably the most critical part of the program as it is the highest prolonged intensity training of the entire cycle. At 24% of total training time at zone 4 and above, this is a challenging period and one that I find to be what best prepares me for not only for racing but also in being able to absorb subsequent training efficiently and enjoyably.

As you will see in the training plan, I prefer to number all the build periods sequentially rather than have just two types- Build 1 and Build 2, where Build 1 introduces race specificity along with a few other elements and Build 2 focuses on race specificity whilst decreasing other elements. Instead I design each Build period according to the need as determined “on the fly” as there are so many extraneous factors that come into play during the season. However, the Build periods do not stray too far from what Friel suggests- I just tweak them for my personal needs.

We live in a “de-energized” nordic community where many formerly avid racers have gotten old and have selected to no longer race. These ‘oldsters” have not been replaced by younger racers because the area is so expensive to live in and the (few) jobs in the area do not pay sufficiently to offset the high cost of living in a ski resort. Accordingly, very few younger people have the wherewithal to select Sun Valley as a place to locate. All of this, of course, is in addition to the rarity of a nordic ski racer to begin with. As a result there is less energy for putting on races in the Sun Valley area and where in the past we typically had 4-5 races on the local trails we are now down to 1-2. So… Team Bumble Bee has devised a series of time trials that we schedule into our training plans. These TTs are on specific courses so we can track times and speeds over the years. We have two 10 km courses and an 18 km course that do a reasonable job of replicating what one might see at a World Masters race with  respect to climbs and downhills. The TTs play an integral part in determining our form and identifying any deficiencies that can be worked on in the coming weeks of training. Doing TTs is a very useful tool, particularly when you do not have many local or regional races to choose from.

Strength – the key to excellence in skiing

Strength has become a centerpiece of our training for a number of reasons. The three primary drivers are:

  1. As an aging athletes, we are fighting an important battle with the well-documented process of sarcopenia (loss of muscle) that is the result of hormonal changes as we age. Natural levels of human growth hormone, insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), and testosterone all are falling of at a fairly rapid rate. This puts strength work at the top of the training pyramid for aging athletes. Such strength work both builds muscle but also provides the body with the stimulus to produce the hormones and growth factor that would otherwise be absent.
  2. Cross country skiing has become an increasingly upper body/core-strength dominated sport. Advances in technique and equipment have allowed for increased reliance on the upper body muscle groups. A strong and durable upper body, connected via a similarly strong and durable core to the already well-developed lower body muscle groups is critical for fast and efficient skiing.
  3. One of the most significant elements that we, as aging athletes, lose is dynamic/explosive power. This ability is critical in the kick phase of classic skiing and the push-off phase in skate skiing. Maintaining and developing explosive power is a difficult thing for older skiers but one that, with properly designed strength exercises, can be straightforwardly accomplished, albeit with lower expectations that what one would have as a youngster.

Given these realities, our strength program is a year-round, intensive activity that is always in progression. There are a few periods of maintenance, but these are only during the most competitive periods, otherwise strength is playing a large role in the weekly plan.

We endorse a three-times weekly strength session protocol of between 60 minutes and 90 minutes (30-50 minutes during the race period). The protocol includes dynamic exercises that can be directly mapped onto motions and force production as similar to cross country skiing as is possible. Static exercises such as planks have no place in this program. Rather, a starting point of a plank may progress with a dynamic upper body movement in a way such that it approximates a specific cross country skiing movement. Similarly, pull-ups combined with a dynamic lower body movement are utilized. This theme permeates all of the exercises we do.

bietostolen race courses

The organizers at Beitostolen have done an outstanding job at selecting and documenting the races courses that will be used at the Masters World Cup. They probably have a large database course measurements to tap into since the site is also a World Cup venue and the courses therefore have been precisely measured for homologation with FIS. Leveraging these data for the Masters World Cup has led to some nice courses for competition at the masters level.

I summarized the FIS/World Masters Cross Country Ski Association (WMCCSA) requirements for the Masters World Cup last year and compared those requirements with the World Cup requirements. Table I presents the data and the comparison.

Table I. FIS and WMCCSA requirements for Masters World Cup events compared to requirements for FIS World Cup events.

Beitostolen have now provided their homologation certificates for each of the three courses that will be used during the 2019 Masters World Cup. The certificates are shown below for the most difficult  “A” course (World Cup Loop), the less difficult “B” course (Urban Loop), and the easy “C” course (Lake Loop or “geezer” course for F09 and older and M10 and older).

Here are the uphill summaries:

Course “A” (World Cup Loop):

Course “B” (Urban Loop):

Course “C” (Lake Loop):

The courses for the 5 km, 10 km, 15 km, 30 km, and 45 km races are built from combinations of the three course loops. The following course sequences will be utilized:

5 km: C

10 km: C-A

15 km: C-B-A

30 km: 2 X 15km (C-B-A-C-B-A)

45 km: 3 X 15 km (C-B-A-C-B-A-C-B-A)

The F09 and older and M10 and older only use the “C” course for their 5 km and 10 km race distances.

Looks like we will all be very familiar with the C-B-A combo by the end of the 2019 MWC!

The terrain summaries for each of the courses follows:

Course “A”:

Course “B”:

Course “C”:

It is a delight to have all of this information available so that one can simulate the courses on one’s home trails. We’ve already got some ideas for a couple of loops here in Sun Valey that might do a good job of mimicking the the “A” and “B” loops. The organizers, however, have not provided a summary of the height difference (HD), maximum climb (MC), and total climb (TC) for each of the race lengths. Table II is a summary of these data:

Table II. Height difference (HD), maximum climb (MC), and total climb (TC) for the three loop courses and the five race distances.

The organizers in Beitostolen have pretty much hit the specifications that the FIS and WMCCSA require (see Table I and Table II) for Masters World Cup events. The total climbing is similar to but slightly greater than that at the Klosters 2017 MWC (except for the 15 km where the Klosters 15 km course exceeded the FIS/WMCCSA limits for total climb) and much greater (by about a factor of about two) than the Minneapolis 2018 MWC. Minneapolis was challenged with low snow and the organizers were limited to trails that had snowmaking or that they could get snow to. As a result the lengths of the races and the climbs were reduced relative to what was planned. And, of course, there was the train that blocked the course in the 30 km/45 km classic races which in turn lead to further shortened races and less climbing. Bottom line for Beitostolen: focus on climbing because there will be a lot of it.

It will be interesting to see how the Beitostolen courses will ski. They appear to have good “rhythm” but you never know for sure until you ski a course.

Based upon inspection of the profiles, the 10 km course will not have a significant climb until about the 7.2 km point and after a downhill there is a steady climb to the finish for the last 600 m. It will be important to push these sections of the course as it might be hard to get away in the undulating terrain in the first 7 km.

Similarly, in the 15 km race there is no significant climb until about the 6.7 km mark. The course climbs sharply and then steadily for about 1.5 km so this will be a “crux” point in the race as after this climb there will not be another significant climb until about the 11 km mark and then the 600 m climb to the finish. Since the 30 km and 45 km races use the same loop sequence these observations apply to these races as well.

Focus, finesse, and finishes

In my wrap-up of the Minneapolis WMC, I noted that I was losing focus at points throughout the races, that I was not picking the best (or even just good) lines through turns, and I was not setting up properly for finishes as I lost two out of three sprints in the individual races. So the theme for Beitostolen will be race focus, trail finesse, and smart finishes. I’ve been actively working on all of these elements in training and hopefully it all comes to fruition in a series of races coming up in the next few weeks. If not- more work to do!

Brave Enough – a new project by Team Bumble Bee

Team Bumble Bee (aka Betsy and Bob Youngman) have embarked on a new project:

Brave Enough – A Handbook on Training for Masters Cross Country Skiers

“it’s all about the vertical” is taking a hiatus.

You can monitor progress at the Brave Enough site where there will be updates and new content forthcoming.

Thanks for reading, commenting , and providing lively interaction on “it’s all about the vertical”. It has been a rewarding experience!

Salomon S Lab Ultra at 1000 km – a great shoe gets better

About a year ago Salomon began showing the Spring 2018 product line-up for trail running. They decided (for reasons not obvious) to replace the outstanding and very popular 2017 S Lab Sense Ultra entirely- i.e. no update to the current model, no Sense Ultra 2, just drop the model (the Sense Ultra was still in the SS18 catalog but availability was clearly limited to the in-stock production from 2017). Given that this shoe was the best selling S Lab shoe ever, many did not understand the logic behind the decision. I too questioned this decision and,  based on my substantial experience with the Sense Ultra, purchased additional pairs for the upcoming 2018 running season.

The 2018 replacement for the S Lab Sense Ultra model is the S Lab Ultra (this shoe appears in the Salomon SS18 catalog as the S Lab Sense Ultra 2, a name that was dropped by by Salomon by Spring 2018 and replaced with the simpler “S Lab Ultra”). The S Lab Ultra is a very different shoe with a narrower last, a new upper with much more protection, a new midsole construction, and, most prominently, external (not laminated) Sensifit “straps” that are integrated with the footbed and the lacing. It is also about 50-75 gms heavier. Salomon worked with professional mountain trail runner and 100+ mile race specialist Francois D’Haene on the design and they focussed on performance optimization for the UTMB (Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc) race terrain. The shoe is rumored to be based on D’Haene’s actual foot shape that is very narrow and long.

I did not do an initial impressions review of the S Lab Ultra because I was rotating it through with a couple of pairs of Sense Ultras and did not feel that I was giving it enough testing time. Now that I have about 1000 kms on the S Lab Ultra I feel confident in what I have experienced.

All of the additional “stuff” on this shoe comes at the cost of increased weight- 285 gms for my size 7.5US/40 2/3 EU. This is to be compared with the Sense Ultra which weighs in at 260 gms. This is a small but not insignificant difference particularly for long runs/races.

Salomon S Lab Ultra 2018. A new shoe in virtually all respects when compared to the S Lab Sense Ultra of 2017, including new external sensifit straps.

A critical eye will immediately question the need for the external SensiFit “straps” in a running shoe. Given that there were no significant issues with upper stability and foothold in the Sense Ultra on challenging mountain terrain, this feature seemed to be either “gimmicky” or actually added some level of performance. Only individual testing would suffice to answer this question. One can also immediately see the heritage of the external straps in current and past Salomon S Lab Skate boots for cross country skiing. The latest (super light) iteration includes a monocoque carbon fiber shell for the lower part of the upper, a carbon fiber cuff, and an integrated strap (all for the measly sum of $1,200 US!).

Salomon S Lab Carbon Skate Boot (left) and S Lab Ultra (right) showing the cross country skiing heritage for external straps on footwear, where such straps have been included in Salomon’s top line models for over a decade.

But cross country skiing, and skate skiing in particular, is a very different situation as it comes to footwear. The fundamental skating motion involves powerful lateral strides where a stiff sole and upper are critical for efficient force production against the snow and the integrated straps assist in further immobilizing the foot to ensure no lateral movement within the boot. This scenario is not something that plays any important role in mountain trail running so it was an open question as to why Salomon put these straps onto their flagship mountain ultratrail running shoe. Well, it turns out that there are reasons and I will get to that below.

I am still looking to see if Salomon will ever use their substantial knowledge of the use of carbon fiber reinforced technology in their running shoes. It seems to be a natural progression for certain areas (like the stiff carbon fiber plate under the foot in Nike’s Zoom Vapor Fly 4%) but nothing yet from Salomon.


The upper is very different from the Sense Ultra with a different mesh, much beefier toe bumper, substantial polymer overlay protection, and, of course the SensiFit “straps”. Salomon also returned to a “top loading” lace garage seen on Salomon shoes in the early part of this decade. I never had a problem when Salomon switched to a “bottom loading” configuration, but many users complained that it was difficult to get the laces into the garage due to the interference with the tightened laces. There is a simple technique that avoids this issue but some never mastered it. Now it seems that Salomon might go back to the original “top loading” approach.

Salomon S Lab Ultra uppers after 1000 kms. Notice, when compared with the Sense Ultra of 2017, the beefed-up toe bumper, substantial polymer overlay protection, and SensiFit “straps”. I expected the shoe would run warmer but it hasn’t.

Given all of the “beefing-up” of the upper I expected that the shoe would run warmer than the Sense Ultra but this did not happen. Apparently there is still sufficient ventilation, even with all of the overlays, to keep my feet as cool as they are in the Sense Ultra.

I was initially concerned about the interface between the mesh portion of the upper and the polymer overlay protection. Such interfaces typically yield the highest localized strain and can often lead to increased erosion and wear. However, even after 1000 km (600 miles) there is only the slightest evidence of erosion in these areas.

Close-up showing one of the high strain areas in the marsh-overlay area and just the very beginnings of some erosion wear along the flex axis.


The midsole is a new construction with some new materials as well. Included in the forefoot is a material that Salomon calls Energy Save that is reported to provide substantial cushioning as well as dampening- similar to the “opal” inserts used on other models. In the forefoot there is an Energy Save layer under a thiner Energy Cell+ layer as can be seen from the side of the shoe- the Energy Save is the white layer and the Energy Cell+ is the red material. Other parts of the midsole (midfoot and heel) use the Enery Cell+ material exclusively which has good cushioning characteristics but less dampening. Also included in the forefoot is a ProFeel Film layer situated between the Energy Cell+ and Energy Save layers. This combination gives ample rock protection- at least for this 128 lb runner.


The outsole is essentially the same as that of the Sense Ultra with the exception that the Sense Ultra uses a black version of the Premium Wet Grip ContraGrip compound. The S Lab Ultra uses a red version. The primary difference is that the black version has carbon particles dispersed within the polymer along with the wet-grip-inducing nano-sized silica particles and nano-sized porosity. The red version has no carbon particles. Some have noticed reduced wet-grip with the red compound. I have not experienced any significant performance reduction in this regard.

Also, the outsole does not have lugs in the middle quarter (in the arch area) similar to the original S Lab Sense “Killian” shoe from 2012. There is no ProFeel Film layer in the area but I have yet to have any issue with protection.

I am getting the same outstanding level of wear performance on the outsole as was evident with the Sense Ultra. Given the current state of the outsoles at 1000 kms, I expect to get the same kind of use that I experienced with the Sense Ultra, i.e. in excess of 2000 kms of use.

Salomon S Lab Ultra outsole after 1000 kms of mountain running in a 50/50 mix of buffed single track and rocky, technical terrain. As usual the only area that shows any wear of significance is the outer right foot rear lug- a place I scrape regularly on downhill braking.

fit and performance

The fit of the S Lab Ultra is a bit on the narrow side for Salomon and Salomon shoes have always been considered narrow when compared to the chunky, high volume fit of most shoes designed in and/or marketed in the US. I was a bit concerned but found the fit to be snug and comfortable but definitely narrower. The narrowness has some advantages when in technical terrain as the shoe will fit in between rocks that I otherwise would have had to sidestep with the slightly wider Sense Ultra. I found this to be very helpful on super technical rocky downhill trails and mountainsides where I was able to keep a rhythm that otherwise would have been necessarily syncopated and therefore slower. Nice!

I have never noticed the increased weight over the Sense Ultra in runs as long as 5 hours however one might begin to tire earlier in longer runs/races.

After these first 1000 kms, I find the fit continues to be comfortable and have had no issues with hot spots or pinching. The shoe does feel very different than the Sense Ultra however. Specifically the S Lab Ultra is stiffer and the exteroception* is reduced. Although this is generally not considered a good thing, there are trade-offs occurring that, depending on terrain, can lead to advantages. The cushioning is just slightly less than the Sense Ultra but it has not affected my comfort level even in longer runs

One of these trade-offs is stability on sharp rock. The Sense Ultra, although very good does not hold a candle to the S Lab Ultra when traversing a sharp rock field at speed. The stiffer, less compliant S Lab Ultra provides, under similar conditions, a significant increase in placement stability and a much reduced lateral displacement at the footbed. This is where the “straps” come in. One can feel the straps lock your foot in when you hit high-level technical terrain (e.g. loose, sharp rock on steep slopes).

I tested the S Lab Ultra against the Sense Ultra on multiple back-to-back intervals on a steep (25-35% grade) 300 m climb followed by a return run down. Both my sense of stability and “sure-footedness” were superior in the S Lab Ultra and my times were about 5% faster at the same exertion level (HR and RPE). 5% is a big number here and it may be much smaller on less demanding terrain but I’ll take that improvement particularly on long steep climbs and descents!


$180 US and well worth it. With the miles that this shoe is giving along with the comfort and performance it is a hard to beat value.

bottom line

A great replacement for the Sense Ultra with enhanced rocky terrain stability that comes at a slight cost in weight.

*many manufacturers and reviewers of trail running shoes (including me in the past) often utilize the term proprioception to describe how well a shoe allows one to “feel” the trail. However, proprioception is actually defined as: the perception of joint and body movements as well as position of the body, or body segments, in space. Whereas exteroception is the sense of the outside world’s interaction with our body mainly through touch. Exteroception is an input to the determination of proprioception. Proprioception is a much bigger thing and studies have found that it can be learned to some extent but also has a genetic component as well. As it concerns shoes, one should use the term exteroception since this is the information one is getting from the shoes to allow the brain to then compute a proprioceptic understanding of the instantaneous position of the body in space. It’s the difference between “trail feel through the feet” (exteroception) and “total body position feel” (proprioception).

Transition to Running

Each ski season ends with a transition to running that, for many, can be difficult and exposes one to potential injury. For me, the six month ski season results in not taking a single step running even though I mentally try to convince myself to put a regular run schedule together. The skiing is just too pleasurable and the race schedule dictates a rather structured training regimen that, at the level I am skiing at, does not allow for much non-ski-specific activities. Younger athletes will often put an easy run as a second workout in their schedule, particularly if the skiing conditions are marginal. But as an oldster and being in a place that always has good skiing in good conditions from about early November to well into April, it just does not make sense to try and mix in running.

So, there exists this delicate transition from primarily skiing to primarily running where the body must fairly rapidly absorb an abrupt change in skeletal-muscular impact forces. The problem one faces after an active ski racing season is that you can come into the running season in exceptional cardiovascular condition and therefore with an engine that can support high volumes and intensity. Unfortunately one’s body will not be ready to abruptly accept all of that pounding. If one is not careful, pesky and sometimes long-lived injury can prevail and disrupt the running season-and even next year’s ski season. It is well worth taking such a transition slowly and methodically toward a running volume that will support a race schedule. Having ramped up volume and intensity too quickly in the past I now subscribe to a transition process that, over a three week period, takes training from 100% skiing to 100% running and only then begins to add substantial volume and intensity.

The lower south-facing slopes are clear of snow but anything on the north sides still has many feet of snow. It is always a challenge in early spring to find a “loop” of dirt to start training on. It often involves a convoluted “hamster-wheel” of ups and downs but it’s all we’ve got and it’s better than taking chances on ice.

This year I will be doing a trail marathon race in early May- as early a race as I have ever done after an active racing ski season. This means that I need to transition from skiing in late March to a 100% run schedule and get prepared to run 26 trail miles (42 km) all in about 6 weeks. This is not an easy task, but I will outline my approach below.

The reason I chose to do this early trail marathon is that it is on a course I have always wanted to race and I have some excellent competition for my age group. Normally there is no one in my age group that will give me good competition, but this race attracts a runner my age who is still training hard and putting up very good times. He is a very accomplished mountain runner, has held overall course records for the Pikes Peak marathon and currently has numerous age group course records on both the Pikes Peak course and the race course for this trail marathon in early May. I have my work cut out for me and it will be a valuable experience to race this guy, independent of the outcome. I will be hard pressed to put out a peaked effort and may have to settle for a paced effort instead but the calibration and experience is worth it. We can also take advantage of some great whitewater kayaking on the Arkansas where Bee will try out some new boats.

I have two other mountain trail races scheduled this spring- a 35 km 1400m vert (4500 feet) race in early June and a 25 km 750m vert (2500 feet) race in mid-June. Below you will find my proposed training schedule for this period- late March-June. I generally take July for adventuring in the mountains and then get back to ski-specific training starting 1 Aug- such will be the case this year.

training progression

This training progression is fairly aggressive and as such the first race (the trail marathon) will necessarily be a training race with a conservative pacing strategy. Avoiding overuse injuries is crucial to a successful running season so at any sign of a developing musculo-sketetal issue in the first race will require backing off, stoping and stretching, or even walking if necessary.

Bee climbs up Proctor Ridge on the last bits of snow on the south-facing side. Looking good (and good to have her back on the trails) after figuring out some ankle and knee issues.

Presented below is the planned running training for the last week of March 2018, April 2018, and May 2018. One will note a significant amount of strength training- this is because of the central importance of upper body strength and core in cross country skiing and the fact that at 62 y/o (with T and HGH declining), I cannot afford to lose a single fiber of the strength that I have developed over the last 5 years. Without the continuous stimuli, strength will diminish and it will be difficult (i.e. time consuming) to re-establish prior to the ski season. Keeping up the strength work year-round just goes with territory of an athlete who competes in cross county skiing at the top of the international masters level. Although not yet reflected in this plan, I will be adding some double pole roller skiing starting in May- likely 2-3 times a week starting at 45 min and progressing from there. This work maintains the neuromuscular adaptations and muscular endurance necessary to be efficient in double poling. It will also allow for further refinements in technique.

The  three month progression shown here, if successful, will likely serve as a spring season template going forward. I like templates that can easily be adapted but have an underlying approach that has been proven to work for me. Everyone will be different so be sure to obtain advice from professionals before applying any training plan that someone else is following.

Treading lightly on early season dirt hoping to build up the eccentric loading capacity without any consequential injury. It’s always a challenge!

The first run was on March 29- and I had not taken a single run since early November 2017. So it was imperative to ramp cautiously as is clear in the run distance progression shown in the training schedule (8 km – 26 km -66 km -72 km – 110 km) prior to the trail marathon on 5 May. Although I could easily support some significant miles cardiovascularly, it just takes time on the trail to get the musculo-skeletal system “hardened.”

Elevation profile for the trail marathon race on 5 May. Not much flat and some good extended climbing- basically my wheelhouse. Care will be taken on the downs as I will not have sufficient time to truly “harden” the systems that will be eccentrically taxed. The last 7 miles are all downhill so it will be imperative to support a good pace throughout this final section. Total elevation gain = 900 m (3000 feet).

Through April, a steadily increasing progression of distance/time, vertical ascension, and level of effort are planned. However, due to the short time for preparation (5-6 weeks), no interval sessions are incorporated prior to the first race. This is for two reasons: first, there is risk of injury and second, I am carrying significant fitness, both aerobic and high-end, from the just finished ski season. Although intervals might allow for more comfort during the race, they will not make any substantial difference in my ability to perform. Rather, holding the muscles, tendons, and bones together will be the primary determinant of performance.

Last week of March 2018:


and May:

As can be seen, there is a slight break the week after the trail marathon and then a quick ramp up to two weeks of max levels of time and distance. This is followed by a “taper” week leading up to the second race on 2 June. I have also brought back intervals into this training period in the form of two-a-week sessions where one is a LT workout and the other is a VO2max workout. Hopefully I will be fully conditioned for the additional stress that these workouts will place on my body. Getting back to some intensity will be important in being able to properly perform on the major climb in the 35 km race.

Specifically, the 35 km mountain trail race has a very long, continuous climb with some significant steep sections and similarly steep downhills. It also has a couple of “kickers” in the last 10 km. I have done the 60 km version of this race, the last 35 km of which is the 35 km race. So, having run the route I know what to expect and should be able to get the pacing right. But I will note that the “kickers” are much more difficult than they look from the profile.

Elevation profile for 35 km mountain trail race. One significant and long climb followed by a couple of “kickers” that turn out to be more difficult than they look. The first climb starts out at 7% average grade, mellows to 3.5% and then goes to 10% to the top. The first of the “kickers” is 13% followed by the second one at about 8%.  Total climb = 1400 m (4500 feet).

The third race is a 25 km mountain trail race that has one long, continuous climb and then one long, continuous downhill. I have raced this in the past and hope to improve on my time. The last time I raced it I had quite a bit left at the finish and realized that I did not push the uphill hard enough. Not this year!

Elevation profile for 25 km mountain trail race. One long, continuous climb followed one long, continuous downhill. Looking to improve on my time at this race. The climb is a steady 10% grade with a few steeper parts up to about 15%. Total climb = 750 m (2500 feet).

The training period leading up to this race will have a short rest period followed by about 10 days of max training including two interval sessions (one LT one VO2max) and then a 3 day “taper”. Given the shorter length of this race (about 2h at race pace) a shorter “taper” should be fine.

So that’s the progression and, hopefully a successful one that I will be able to apply going forward. Results will be the determinant on that.

There will be some very easy running for the last two weeks of June and then begins the mountain adventures! Perhaps we will see you out on the trails if you are in the mountain west!

Best in training to all.

Five Year Project- Finished!

At the outset this blog was envisioned to be a place for me to deposit my thoughts, approaches, research, and evaluations for a program to move a semi-decrepit former athlete on his way toward excellence. The time horizon was five years and that is where this project is. So this will be the last post.

I hope that at least a few of those very few who have read the drivel on this blog have gotten something from it. I subscribe to the tenet once explained to me by my PhD thesis adviser as it pertained to the weekly seminar series put on by the department- “Always go to the seminars- you will always learn something- either something of substance or that the speaker is not very good at what he/she does or perhaps something in between. But you will always learn something and that will serve you well going forward”. It was in this spirt that I posted what was here and I do really hope that readers got something out of it.

It has been an enjoyable and fun journey to wrangle this old body back into shape and I thank all of you who have taken an interest in the process and particularly to those who commented and asked insightful questions. Good luck to all who tread a path toward their version of excellence!

Shallow Thinking, Weak Thinking

There have been a numerous published articles and podcasts where authors, interviewers, and guests have expounded upon their opinions as it relates to the use of “technology” for training guidance (a couple of the many examples can be found most recently here, and as examples here and here). Specifically, it is argued, that such use can often be a negative influence on an athlete’s training progression and that the use of devices and calculations “get in the way” of “real” training. Often, these opinion-holders recommend the exclusive use of “perceived exertion” to gauge effort in training sessions. Often, these opinion-holders have degrees in Sports Physiology and either are doing or have done research in the field. Often, these opinion-holders have never successfully coached, trained, or even have (or had) relationships with Olympic and International level athletes. Often, I just shake my head in disbelief and disappointment at how “pseudo” the pseudo-science of Sports Physiology and endurance training seems to be progressing.**

shallow thinking

This sort of thing is the equivalent in the hard sciences of not just ignoring a an entire channel of relevant data but not even bothering to measure it- the sort of thing that will also make your work irrelevant if not embarrassing if you tried to present it to colleagues in the field (not so, apparently, for the pseudo-science of Sports Physiology where many in the field are derisive toward the use of heart rate monitors and gps watches and depend on the highly flawed concept of (and use of) rating of perceived exertion (RPE)). As an example, if I were to be measuring the influence of temperature on some phenomenon where temperature is known to hold relevance (like the reaction rate of most chemical reactions) and presented data on the “perceived” temperature when I could easily measure the temperature in the experiment, my hard science colleagues would find it laughable. Same goes here in understanding and directing endurance training for the measurement of things like heart rate, pace (or graded pace), and blood lactate. Yet there is increasing derision of the use of such measures among certain segments of the “profession”. Of course the measured temperature for a chemical reaction rate in the above example is much more accurately defined than the relationship of instantaneous heart rate of an exercising individual to training work load but ignoring the heart rate data channel altogether (as many profess one should do) is just throwing away important data- data that many of the most successful elite endurance athletes (and their coaches) depend on for training plan structure, monitoring, and adjustment.

I call Sports Physiology a pseudo science because, just like medical science and nutrition science, the researchers in the field are left almost entirely disabled by the fact that they are unable to conduct the experiments that would allow for any sort of reliable insight into a concept let alone develop a firm base for causality (something that requires a detailed understanding of the associated mechanism(s) that are in play). Given the high variability of the response of the human body to training stimuli, the difficulty in measuring anything linked to a mechanistic process that would describe training progression, and that there exist significant ethical issues associated with experiments that likely would provide the beginning bits of causality (i.e. taking subjects (aka “specimens” in the hard science world) to failure), all of these conspire to make any attempts to discern even major, large effect, differences in efficacy of training programs or processes essentially impossible.

Perhaps there will be experimental breakthroughs in Sports Physiology by utilizing the increasing understanding of genes and gene expression that may lead to better guidance on endurance sport training for individuals, but that sort of thing is a ways off in my opinion.

Where does this leave us? Well, there is one approach that at least has a basis in sound correlation between program/process and results- the group analysis of the years of documented training of elite performers such as described in numerous studies published by Stephen Seilier and his colleagues (among others). By analyzing the data in training logs and the training progressions employed by these high-performing endurance athletes one can develop a sense of what works and what does not work as it is related to success in a given endurance sport. These studies lead to some general principles and guiding precepts that can be adopted by individuals for development of their training programs.

Unfortunately, some in the field derisively call these general principles and guiding precepts “dogma” and project an attitude of just brushing away the only defensible source for training program guidance. In it’s place they provide “true” dogma- dogma in the religious sense, i.e. entirely unsupportable assertions apparently fabricated out of some sort of other-worldly “vision” they seem to have experienced. As a trained scientist I find this to be, on the surface, laughable, but also, in a deeper way, very much insulting and, more importantly, troubling for the field. It has been damaging enough that the Journals in the Sports Physiology (and Medical “Science” and Nutrition “Science” fields) produce reams and reams of unsupportable “conclusive” findings to now see “religious” arguments being made. It is a sad state of affairs. It is a state of “Shallow Thinking, Weak Thinking”, and we should expect much more from those actively engaged in the research in this field.

As an example of some of these training principles derived from actual experience with elite athletes, here is an article that analyzes an elite athlete’s entire competitive career. This athlete just happens to be the most successful winter endurance athlete of all time- and she has steadfastly and rigorously used heart rate training throughout her career.

Marit Bjorgen, the most successful endurance winter athlete of all time (and most successful winter athlete, period) winning a roller skiing race in the summer of 2017. Note the heart rate monitor strap and watch- something that Bjorgen has used continuously throughout her career to structure, monitor, and adjust her training program. Note also that Bjorgen came back to racing after having a child in 2016 to win numerous World Cups and to win two golds, a silver, and two bronze medals at the 2018 Olympics.

weak thinking

Ok, so back to the use of “technology” in training. For runners, cross country skiers, and other endurance athletes, the heart rate monitor has been a central piece of “technology” that has been used to monitor and enable structured training. From the first clunky devices (Team Bumble Bee had a Polar Tunturi Pulser model- you had to lift your shirt to see the display on your chest) to the first wireless model (the Polar Sport Tester 3000 (Team Bumble Bee upgraded to this model in about 1984)), to the current models of heart rate monitors from many manufacturers, the heart rate monitor has become a common tool used by professional and amateur athletes alike. The use of a heart rate monitor in conjunction with measured physiologic “thresholds” has allowed athletes and coaches to accurately measure and structure training to allow for reliable training progression toward important goals. The key word here is “tool”- a device or implement used to carry out a particular function. The function of the heart rate monitor and the associated watch is to allow for real-time monitoring of heart rate, pace, and time as it relates to the training session structure and goals. It is not a task master or an evaluator of training or performance. The athlete (or athlete and coach for those fortunate enough to have a coach) is the task master and the one who evaluates the efficacy of any training regimen.

Given the large (and to some extent undefined) number physiologic variables that can play a role in how a training session goes, data channels other than heart rate are essential to understanding the results of the work undertaken. These include breathing rate, muscle comfort, restedness, among others. Taking account of all of the available data is critical to ensuring that one’s training is progressing as planned. The relationship between these many other variables and heart rate can be established by the individual athlete with good accuracy and this combined with use of one’s lactate threshold heart rate value gives an athlete a powerful toolbox to monitor, structure, and adjust training. How can this be “bad”?

Well, from some accounts you might think that the modern heart rate monitor/timing device is an evil actor that is preventing you from getting the most out of your training. Many of the issues that are brought up as it concerns heart rate-based training are the direct result of weak thinking on the part of the user. The concept that the use of a watch or heart rate monitor could be the origin of a bad workout is laughable. Rather it is clear that the issue with those who allow a specific pace or a specific heart rate to drive their workouts is a mental one not a “technology” one. With such weak thinking not only will the training be difficult (and likely not successful) but the mental fortitude required for effective racing will be highly compromised. No wonder there are so many reports of failed races by competitors who choose to use heart rate as a single controlling parameter rather than as a data channel to be taken together with a number of other factors (both measured and perceived) to regulate pace and determine in-race strategies.

So take those recommendations from so-called experts to “ditch the watch” with a fair share of doubt and determine for yourself exactly what it is that might be limiting your progress. I think that if you think hard about this you will find that the heart rate monitor or GPS watch or whatever other technology you are using to help with your training is not the culprit. The culprit is you and your ability to absorb and factor all the data channels available to you into an effective training and racing program. Don’t blame the technology it is simply a tool and not a “bad actor.” If you can’t out-think your watch you certainly are not going to have the mental fortitude to chip away at that wall between you and your goals.

A good review article (specific to ultra marathon training and racing) of the elements involved with heart rate training and some suggestions on how to integrate heart rate monitoring into a training program can be found here.

**Remember also that what I write in this blog is about the process an athlete might take toward attainment of excellence. Much of the argument against the use of “technology” in endurance sport training is directed towards “participants” not athletes. I colloquially define an athlete as someone who is striving towards excellence in their respective sport- that means someone who is driven to get the most out of their body and be competitive either overall or within an age group in competitions. For “participants”, those who are looking to experience an endurance sport and/or just finish a challenging event, perhaps intensive use of technology is not called for. However I will still argue that when utilized correctly and consistently, such technology can be a valuable tool, even for “participants.”