Animals are fascinating to watch as they are designed ideally to move, move fast, and with minimal effort. Isn’t it interesting though that animals typically do not follow the advice that is prescribed for humans. How often do cheetahs run interval sessions in preparation for hunting gazelles? Do chimps perform yoga poses prior to swinging and jumping between trees high up in the jungle canopy? Do gorillas hit the gym, do a few 1x max weight reps to retain muscle mass? Do lizards and rodents train reaction time and agility daily so as to practice escaping predators?
When elementary physics is used to explain the natural world, bumblebees are not supposed to be able to fly as their wing surface area is too small relative to their body mass, and the kangaroo is an evolutionary error because the energy required to hop or jump as a primary means of travel exceeds the energy a kangaroo can acquire through its diet. Yet bumblebees do indeed fly, and kangaroos exist and hop. It likely took high speed cameras to allow scientists to ‘see’ that bumblebees rotate their wings adding another dimension of movement which results in the ‘missing’ lift force, and it took an appreciation of the hydraulic-elastic components of fascia to realize that the energy from landing is stored in the kangaroo’s connective tissue and is released on take off minimizing the muscular energy required to hop.
We still don’t have a firm grasp on how all species move, how they evolved to move in the manner they do, and what mutations (i.e. failed means of locomotion) were eliminated in the process due to inefficiency and/or a lack of energy. With millions of years of evolution to tweak every creature into its current form one would think that we would be studying all species to expand our understanding of movement, energy conservation, and propulsion. We have only a rough understanding of the world around us, have a basic comprehension of our own body at best, but go to the local gym and everyone knows exactly what the human body needs in order to perform and optimally at that.
Evolution, nature, animals know something about movement that we have still to uncover, so why are we focused on working harder and not smarter?
Animals don’t train, work, or live ‘hard’. Animals in the wild do not suffer from the list of chronic diseases which humans do. Animals do not hydrate themselves until bloated, have nor need the variety in diet available to humans, nor gorge til obese. Animals don’t function anaerobically anywhere near the amount we do as humans, yet we continue to research HIIT (hi intensity interval training) as if it must be the optimal and only way to train. Proof: a recent canfitpro survey published in Impact Magazine shows that HIIT is the top fitness trend in Canada (as voted by trainers).
We claim to be smarter than animals, yet our obsession with short term results, immediate gratification, and ‘low hanging fruit’ precludes us from appreciating that HIIT is not a solution, and is in fact a source of health issues if not outright disease (Note: HIIT is an aspect of peaking, but it is neither an appropriate starting point nor regular component of training). If HIIT was a solution, then evolution – which operates on a time frame designed to sustain symbiotic life on this planet – would have implemented it as a constant, not an exception. Problem is that the longer results take the tougher it is to monetize, and with a society bent on monetizing anything not nailed down (including our own health and that of our children) then the pressure is to deliver positive quarterly revenue and profit results irrespective of the cost. When HIIT does cause disease, no worries, we have a health care system to clean up the mess. Besides, isn’t HIIT supported by research? Indeed, ‘research’ which comes out of labs (including university labs) funded by the fitness, sports equipment and nutrition industries where conclusions for experiments are pre-meditated in the board room with a specific ROI spreadsheet attached as an addendum both for scientist and the VP of Sales & Marketing.
We have not come close to exploring and experimenting with every way of moving, or how to move with greatest ease, with least resistance and/or drag. We are quick to write off flexibility and skill acquisition as ‘talent’, as abilities which must be innate offering an alibi for coaches. For a culture focused on education, isn’t it amazing that when the opportunity to teach arises we instead chose to inform our children that their potential is preordained in their genetic makeup, not malleable, not plastic, still to be determined? For a society overwhelmed with technology where the once impossible is converted daily into the possible, we fail to believe equally in our children’s capacity to innovate who they are, what they are capable of doing, becoming, and achieving. How full of ourselves have we become that we have become incapable of learning through simply observation, trial and error? The animals we keep as pets have much to teach us about eating, resting, playing, moving and living, but we act as if we have surpassed nature, have evolved beyond the natural, and creation needs to stand back and take a life lesson from us. The fact that we are the most obese, diseased, drugged, medicated, depressed, and anxious cohort of mankind makes it is rather hypocritical for us to be giving anyone a lesson. Plus, if HIIT was the solution, then wouldn’t it be making a dent into the trifecta of lifestyle diseases (i.e. obesity, diabetes, Alzheimers)? In fact, the opposite seems to be happening as reports of athlete deaths during triathlons and marathons seems to be rather routine (and less and less newsworthy as it is becoming accepted as if commonplace).
To make the point, I took a video of my dog walking down the street. Notice how his back sways left and right as he walks, he is rotating around a sagittal axis. This rotation is translated into the sagittal plane rotating around a transverse axis of the hip joint as a result of proper timing of each sway with each swing of the leg. The result being that the ‘work’ of walking is spread across not only the muscles of the leg, but all trunk muscles, even his shoulder and neck muscles, and most importantly, the movement of walking couples the forward legs with the rear legs in order to maximize efficiency and minimize work.
What is magnificent is not only his freedom in movement but how he coordinates movement throughout his body with minimal loss of energy. His movement is harmonic: performed with a level of efficiency where the motion is nearly perfect and symmetrical, requiring minimal exertion to be sustained, no different than a gold medal performance by an athlete, the undulations of a crawling caterpillar, or the roll of an ocean wave.
Animals move in amazing ways not because they focus on maximizing effort, but on minimizing energy expenditure (hence effort). In nature, food is rarely abundant so to be able to forage or hunt, animals must be able to move with the lowest level of exertion, hence aerobically. Anaerobic effort is reserved for survival, used sparingly along with the flight-fight-freeze reflex. After millions and millions of years, millions of trial and error experiments, this is what evolution has bred into animals as the optimal use of our common physiology. Yet for some reason – pride comes to mind – humans seem bent on proving millions of years of evolution wrong, the unpublished research of millions of experiments by Mother Nature wrong, as we want to prove that max exertion, max effort, and forcing square pegs into round holes is fundamental to peak performance (i.e. anaerobic/HIIT training).
Imagine if my dog didn’t walk with a sway, if he walked with a rigid core. The effort to walk would be monumental, the effort to run would be exhausting, yet athletes, trainers, and coaches typically train static core stability (as opposed to dynamic stability as found in dancers & gymnasts). How many times have you heard a trainer, a coach, and worst of all, an health professional teach to tighten the core, suck in the gut, pull in your belly button and then try to move let alone breathe? Its an asinine concept. As asinine as trying to teach a dog to suck in its gut, pull in its belly button, hold his core while he walks… as if dogs are doing it all wrong, as if it would improve how dogs walk.
If the goal is fluid, dynamic, agile, coordinated movement, then this concept of tightening the core is the most backwards and counterproductive idea to come along (so far). In fact, the instruction to hold your core not only provokes injury, it will cause injury, or if an athlete already has an injury, it will cause it to worsen, compromising other musculo-skeletal structures.
Unfortunately, even research performed regarding core strength suggests that the ideal posture to assume is one which starts with a rigid immovable core. Again, ‘research’ proves that this static concept works because testing is performed in a lab, under manipulated conditions, not during the performance of a sport where specific technique must be executed with quality. Simply observing how animals move reveals that a static core is the antithesis to the ability to generate power, fluidly, and effortlessly because it prevents rotation, in the core, thus in joints across the entire body. But we are obviously far smarter than animals, so why listen to the millions of years of lessons embedded into animals as a result of evolution …right?
The key to consistent peak performance is coupling which depends on the translation of rotational power generated across multiple joints and muscles groups into a final plane of movement. All of this depends on flexibility, in muscles, in joints, in mindset, in technique, in breathing, and in timing.
You can train hard all your life hoping to achieve a singular peak performance, while constantly risking injury, burn out, or max out, or you can train smart enjoying and exploring the endless potential of your body, discovering and creating new patterns of movement.
Training hard has its limits: we all have 24 hrs in the day, and the body and mind both break down at a fairly predictable point for everyone. But, training smart has no limits. If we haven’t figured out how and why all animals move as efficiently as they do, as most are able to out sprint, out last, and out maneuver humans, then I believe there is incredible opportunity to redesign our movements permitting continuity in record setting across all sports. The creative opportunity to reinvent movement which will lead to new records is literally endless as no two athletes have the same body dimensions, attributes, and training. The art of sport truly offers a blank canvas for our imaginations.
This post is in thanks to Coach Diego Pesce, my son’s swim coach for several years.
When coaching, Diego would share with his athletes and with those parents who were interested his fascination with fish. When he was growing up he had an aquarium, and he would watch his fish noting from where their movement originated and how it was leveraged to swim, to escape, to evade. I can still recall Diego on deck reminding his athletes that “fish have no necks” and if they swam like fish – minimal neck movement – then they would reduce drag, reduce unnecessary movement, maintain streamline, swim easier thus faster as a result.
Thank you Diego for being a great influence in the life of my son, and in my own appreciation of movement – human and animal.