The Yin and Yang of Running

by Russ Ebbets

It seems almost cliché but if one wants to add a mystical quality to some idea all you need to do is reference some Eastern or oriental thought. This reference often quotes ancient wisdom that is both timeless and current.

The yin and yang of life are one of those concepts. Yin is the feminine quality with aspects of darkness and stillness. Yang is the opposite with masculine qualities, energy and brightness. In youth we strive to categorize and organize our world with polar opposites of thought that offer a clear delineation between choices. Experience, maturity and “life” always come to show that variations of a middle ground is where much of life happens.

Running and training offers a multitude of dichotomies that necessitate continual choices. These choices are driven by one’s intent, knowledge, goals and aspirations, but can also be driven by one’s ignorance and stupidity. In this article we’ll examine some dichotomies that commonly present for a runner. These dichotomies may warrant attention or neglect, may be elucidating or confusing or possibly be thought and action producing, helping defeat the status quo.

Concentric Contractions v. Eccentric Contractions

There are several types of muscle contractions the body can execute, the two most common are concentric and eccentric contractions. A concentric contraction usually involves flexion of a joint, dominates acceleration-type actions and predominates the training of poorly informed athletes. Eccentric contraction describes the muscle tension as a joint “opens” or generally moves into extension. Eccentric contractions are associated with decelerative actions and are also the strongest contractions the body can make by about 10%. Eccentric contractions are generally ignored by most athletes, even elite ones. This fact may explain why most “pulled” muscles happen during the poorly trained eccentric phase. One of the great challenges of training is to balance the timing and coordination of these two contractions. When done precisely there is body coordination in its truest sense, one muscle group relaxes while the opposing muscle group contracts. With any compromise of this process, one’s body is literally working against itself.

A Jogger v. A Runner

In the cocktail party days of the 80s, the “How do you train?” question always proved to be a difficult one for me to answer. What the jogger was expecting was something along the lines of “four to five miles a day.” My thinking was always along the lines of hard-medium-easy, micro and macrocycles, seasonal periodization, intervals, hills, distance runs, resistance work and recovery efforts. The “easy” question was not so easy to answer in a sound byte, before there were sound bytes, but that was the difference between a jogger and a runner.

Aerobic v. Anaerobic Training

One of the great contributions physiology has made to training is an understanding of aerobic and anaerobic training. At the aerobic threshold (roughly 140 beats per minute) one loses the ability to talk in complete sentences. Training at the aerobic threshold creates cardiovascular efficiency that aids endurance efforts. When one reaches the anaerobic threshold (roughly 170 beats per minute) one has about 30 seconds left of effort before the elevated levels of lactate pollute one’s system to the point where coordination, efficient force production and symmetric motion are all compromised and what is left is a disjointed effort. Training in different heart rate zones creates an organism that can capitalize/maximize one’s potential and abilities. Predominance in one zone produces a minimally prepared athlete for a competitive effort.

Age v. Youth

Regarding training the young athlete is a blank slate. With guidance, encouragement, teaching and coaching they learn some fundamentals and engrain the thought patterns and problem solving skills necessary for success. Time is a limiting factor in athletic development and all things only grow once. Sports participation give the older athlete “acquired material.” Acquired material can be personal habits, thought patterns, technique and styles of movement learned and mis-learned. Acquired material can also be the accumulation of scar tissue in muscles from the repeated hard efforts over an athletic career. Complicating this state are one’s attitudes regarding change. Does change offer challenges of new horizons or the complacency of a status quo? All future improvements necessitate change.

Linear Motions v. Agility

Running is basically a linear activity. Agility is generally seen as side to side movements or possibly weaving this way and that through a series of cones. Even the NFL tests prospective players with L, T or box-type pattern runs. The problem with all these activities is the lack of reactive thought or tactical intent. The side-to-side/cone tests are the same for you as they are for me. On one hand, this makes sense. Results can be compared between individuals to see who does a particular test better, faster or with less errors. The problem is that sport is dynamic, constantly changing and it is often one’s ability to act on split-second decisions that generates success or failure. When I was taught “agility” by my Soviet teachers, agility was taught with a mental component, the ability to think and move, agility of the mind and equated with cleverness. We were cautioned to be aware of a cheerful opponent. The teachers quoted Leo Tolstoi’s adage that, “the angry man is not clever.”

Neuromuscular Education v. Neuromuscular Re-education

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change and learn through drill and repetition. Neuromuscular education is when this process happens for the first time. This involves developing habitual motor patterns with timing and coordination be it running, shooting a free throw or playing a musical instrument. Neuromuscular re-education is the re-learning of movement patterns that have been lost due to illness, injury or to change patterns that were not learned correctly the first time. Neuromuscular education is a proactive process, while neuromuscular re-education is a reactive one. Ideally, neuromuscular education optimizes potential. Neuromuscular re-education is a re-start or “do-over” in the whole process and is wasteful of time within an athletic lifetime of 10-12 years.

Fear of Success v. Fear of Failure

Seemingly opposites both fears are caused by outcome thinking, thought or worry about what could/should happen. You should focus on your knowledge, skills and abilities and not on your fears, doubts and insecurities. Eighty-five to 95% of what we worry about never comes to pass. Adopt the 3-3-3 Method – notice three things in your surroundings, listen for three sounds and move three parts of your body. This all gets you in the here and now. Corrie ten Boom is credited with saying, “Worry does not rob tomorrow of its sorrow, it robs today of its strength.” The ability to control one’s thoughts is another form of “strength.”

Hard Work v. Smart Work

Hard work, more miles, faster intervals will get one better to a point. The great risk becomes chronic fatigue, injuries and lackluster performances. One’s talent and abilities get left on the track, the road or in the weight room, be that as it may. Smart work involves conscientious participation, knowing what you are doing and why you’re doing it. There are no more junk miles, no more “one more,” to prove you are tough. The athletic lifestyle demands a 24-hour attention to things that allow one to become, to develop. Success is achieved by approximation, not a grand leap. Plan the work, work the plan and be both tough and smart.

Speed v. Accuracy

The faster one’s actions the less accurate they become. This is called Fitt’s Law. Whether one is stacking cups or running downhill, in either case the results become sloppy. The problem is the timing and coordination of movement. When we try to do something faster than we’ve ever done before, we have to develop a “new” pattern of movement, a “faster” one. Our new pattern is sloppy as we have not fully coordinated the movements of the various joints involved. Training-wise we can accommodate movements around a 95% effort, but when one attempts to do things “all out” one’s technique begins to unravel. All-out effort can also be injurious and take a longer time to recover from. The speed v. accuracy dilemma is a perfect example of the admonition “practice what you can, not what you can’t.”

Horizontal v. Vertical

Although the horizontal component of running predominates, there is also a vertical component. The horizontal correlates closely with stride length. Even though the vertical component is minimal any excess, however slight, can negatively affect a performance effort for several reasons. Too much vertical correlates with airtime and also disrupts one’s running economy. Video analysis of one’s form nowadays is a simple process. Periodically getting feedback from a knowledgeable teammate or coach can be 10 minutes well invested, as any investment in improving the timing and coordination of the running movement will aid performance.

Function v. Fashion

Sometimes I wonder how Roger Bannister did it. He never wore florescent pink or neon green shoes. His whole track kit was basic black and white. As humans we are enamored with the new and the shiny, meaningless change. This can dilute or diminish one’s attention to fundamentals. Colorful changes can make one feel special, but one must always attend to a sport’s fundamentals. Technological innovations and theoretical advances may aid training and performance to a point, but at the end of the race you still need to be able to run one step at a time and the last lap by yourself, just like Roger Bannister did.

Biological v. Chronological Age

Chronological age is how long you have been alive using the standard measurement of time that is the same for you, me and the next person. Biological age is how old your cells, tissues and bodily organs are. Biological age can differ significantly from one person to the next. Multiple biomarkers (diet, hydration, smoking, obesity, sleep, diabetes, blood pressure, exercise patterns, alcohol use, environmental and psychological stressors, etc.) can all impact one’s biological age. The biomarkers can act independently or synergistically to chemically modify one’s DNA for better or worse. Biological age can be portrayed with an epigenetic clock that statistically correlates the biomarkers with chronological aging.

Training and Competition v. Growth and Development

Youth athletics should be a time of fun and fundamentals. Highly structured training and competition shunts the body’s energies away from growth and development to the “now” of performance. Early specialization limits discovery and all-around growth. The future is spent on the present and Is often the result of a well-intentioned, but misguided parent. That statement won’t make me popular, but it won’t make me wrong, either.

Self-care v. Don’t Care

Runner, know thyself, is a paraphrase of Socrates. Escalating performance warrants escalating attention to personal care awareness. One needs to train with intention. One must eat, sleep and recover, with intention. The help of parents, coaches, friends, teammates or significant others is critical but at the end of the day, no one should care more about you, than you. Self-care has a focus and a goal. Don’t care leads nowhere.

Technique v. Style

A technical model is an established pattern that is based on biomechanics, balance, poise and muscular efficiency. A technical model capitalizes on force production and decreased ground contact times. Good technique also plays a central role in injury prevention and career longevity. Style is one’s personal touch to technique. Everyone is different and sometimes anatomical variation dictates idiosyncratic movements. Style can also be one’s personal flair or a flourish that makes a distinctive signature to movement. But beyond the visual presentation the central questions remain – is your style safe? Legal? Biomechanically efficient? Or just an immature effort to garner attention? The Eastern Europeans saw style as a “rebellion against authority.” Genius has never conformed to a “central tendency,” it breaks the mold. Consider Dick Fosbury.

Stride Length v. Stride Frequency

For the child sprinter growth and maturity will allow one to develop a longer stride length. For the adult/mature sprinter stride frequency is what nets results. As the child grows, growth brings added strength. Improved stride frequency is the result of a subtle balance of coordination, strength and balance all regulated by a neuromuscular system that through training has clarified one’s intent and purpose.

Speed v. Strength

You cannot be fast unless you are strong, but one can become so strong that there is a “diminishing return,” in terms of speed, for all the strength. The bulk or hypertrophy of the added muscle can compromise one’s range of motion and possibly coordination. And for the distance runner, performance can be compromised as the body’s physiology struggles to oxygenate the added muscular bulk, remove wastes and control the body’s core temperature. There is also extra energy expended as the heavier body must struggle against gravity. The goal then becomes to find the area of compromise. One needs to create strength without creating excess bulk by carefully monitoring one’s sets and reps of resistance work.

Shoes v. No Shoes

Thankfully the barefoot/minimalist shoe movement died a quiet death. The thought was that training efforts sans shoes would strengthen the feet, revolutionize one’s training, in a naturalist way and allow one to ascend to the fitness level of the East Africans. “Scientific studies” were produced that substantiated these claims and conclusions. The great problem was that the subjects studied were not elite or world-class runners but rather run of the mill joggers. All it did was hurt people. All it did was perpetuate the myth of some loner living off the grid or a mystical Mexican tribe shuffling over mountainous goat trails on shoes made of car tires. Together these stories presented an idyllic escape from the stress of urban, industrialized, concrete based life. The poster child of the movement, Barefoot Ted, one of running’s novelty acts, is now selling sandals. Peace, out.

Multilateral Development v. Specialization

The significance of multi-lateral development and specialization flip-flops the further along one gets into an athletic career. Initially, the novice should be trained with a wide range of fundamental movements, skills and activities. With athletic maturity success dictates specialization and the narrowing of one’s focus on specific skills and abilities to produce superlative efforts and results. The contribution of multi-lateral development to general fitness and injury prevention still maintains a significant role in terms of healthful participation and career longevity.

Competitors v. Completers

For a significant portion of the running population the daily act of training is akin to a “badge of honor.” Mileage is dutifully recorded and there is a level of consistency that generates a laundry list of body benefits that justifies the training effort. For some the justification of the effort is chronicled with seasonal and personal bests, age-group and overall awards, possibly even prize money and sponsorships. Others distinguish themselves with completions. They become “marathoners” or “ironmen” with 2,4,6 or 8 ___ completed (fill-in the blank with - 10k’s, ½ marathons, marathons, etc.). It is something a non-runner may marvel at, but for the competitor it has about as much accomplishment value as a participation medal. One pursues an inner drive while the other seeks an outward expression.

Process v. Outcome Thinking

This is the battle of one’s conscious focus. Process thinking is an attempt to stay in the here and now by following a practice or scripted series of actions that allow for a competitive effort to unfold. Process thinking keeps one’s attention on things one can control. Outcome thinking widens one’s focus allowing a flood of “what if” thoughts, complicating actions and opening the door for doubt, fear and second guessing. Before every successful outcome there is a process.

Interval Training v. Fartlek

Interval training is the regimented, scientific application of the concepts of work and rest. Sets and reps of running bouts are well defined with prescribed distances, paces and recovery times. Fartlek is Swedish for “speed play.” Fartlek is not quite “run as you feel,” but close. Wide open parks and golf courses are often the locales where a series of sprints, hills or steady state runs can be performed in a less structured manner. Which method of training is better? Franz Stampfl used interval training to prepare Roger Bannister to break the four-minute barrier. Percy Cerutty used fartlek to prepare Herb Elliott for his Rome 1960 1500m gold and world record. Variety is the spice of running. Often it is not the tool, but the mechanic.

Eu-stress v. Dis-stress

Stress generally has negative connotations. Stress is seen as inside or outside pressures people manage with meditation, drugs or not at all. The resulting physical states of anxiety, fear, depression, anger or hate all can be common manifestations. But stress is a two-sided coin. Happiness, joy, goal achievement and diligence are also stressors, positive stressors, if you will, or eu-stress. Competition can go either way and generate excitement, anticipation or accomplishment. Competition can also generate dread, anxiety and fear. It all depends on how you “see” it.

Faith v. Doubt

There is a line in the Bible, “We run by faith, not by sight.” As with much of life we can rarely see, really see, an end point at the beginning of an endeavor. Doubt is mindspace given to anxiety, fear and other self-limiting, often self-generated, non-productive thoughts. Faith is aspirational, belief based and goal oriented thoughts that light the pathway to one’s dreams and accomplishments. Doubt is a cancer of the mind.

Thrive v. Survive

Biologically a cell can only exist in one of two states – thriving or surviving. Thriving entails growth and development, resilience and strength. In the survival mode cell energies are dedicated to resistance, repair and attempts to stave off destruction and death. In a broader, macrocosmic view, lifestyle choices regarding diet, hydration, sleep and positive stressors promote a desirable growth and development. Processed foods, alcohol use and a “don’t care” attitude burns the candle at “both ends” and compromises one’s life in both the long and short runs.

Ground v. Air

All land sports are a constant battle between ground contact and flight. Gravity rules us all and always wins. We struggle against gravity as did Sisyphus with his rock. For the runner, ground contact allows for force production from the powerful leg muscles, but the goal should be to make this time limited with no glue-footed plodding allowed. Airtime is a momentary freedom, but again the recipe for success dictates not too long. The faster one travels the closer becomes the ground and air times. Speed, strength and coordination play a role in this delicate balance.

Hot v. Cold

The extremes of either hot or cold can be deadly for a runner. “Hot” is a relative term as any temperature above 55° Fahrenheit can have a negative effect on performance. The reason here is that as the body’s core temperature rises, the evaporation of sweat does not offer enough cooling to counteract the temperature of the rising core and the negative cascade continues until the activity ceases or some form of heat injury occurs. For runners, cold is generally less dangerous due to the vigorous actions of running and muscle metabolism. One can race in a singlet and shorts at 35° Fahrenheit as comfortably as one would sit in a 73°F room. Of course, winds can create a “wind chill” that combined with temperatures below 20°F that can quickly produce frostbite to exposed areas. Ambient temperatures are environmental conditions that warrant daily attention.

Leaders v. Followers

There are few runners that have the physical strength and mental fortitude to dictate their will through a whole race. The ability to make something happen, all the time, is both mentally and physically challenging. Therefore, racing becomes, for most, a subtle balance of making something happen v. letting something happen. To effectively use these tactics, one needs to have a race plan that considers the idiosyncrasies of a racecourse (hills, turns, start area, sunny areas, bottlenecks, finishing stretch and winds) to determine which tactic is most appropriate. The “winds” always were and still are on the side of the most able navigator.

Accomplishment v. Achievement

Accomplishment is an activity of a longer duration, a successfully completed task. Accomplishments generate personal satisfaction. Achievement is something attained through courage and skill, a higher level of accomplishment. It is a new task, often remarkable due to one’s inner drive. Achievement is something recognized by others. There is an extrinsic value here but not necessarily the personal satisfaction seen with accomplishments.

Closing Thought

Ethics is the study of how to live your life. Since the dawn of civilization this has been a question the great thinkers have wrestled with. One concept, pertinent to our discussion, is that we should strive to live near the “golden mean,” or “golden middle.” The extremes, in this case, are excess and deficiency, too much or too little. It is a nice idea and may work for many. In the end, we all get the chance to make a choice, consider the evidence, make a decision you can live with and forge ahead.

1-RussEbbetsFinalEnd.jpegRuss Ebbets, DC is a USATF Level 3 Coach and lectures nationally on sport and health related topics. He serves as editor of Track Coach, the technical journal for USATF. He is author of the novel Supernova on the famed running program at Villanova University and the sequel Time and Chance. His 2019 book, A Runner’s Guide, a collection of training tips and running articles was a 2019 Track and Field Writers of America Book of the Year finalist. A Runner’s Guide 2 was published in February 2023. Books are available from Amazon.com. He can be contacted at spinedoctor229@hotmail.com.


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