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The Whole Person Equation

Updated: May 6

A few weeks ago, my son and I stood near the finish line of the Monument 10K. Running events always do it for me; they touch me in a visceral way and I get teary-eyed when I watch them. On a nerdy note, I also love watching runners' gaits. I can't help it. When you observe an elite field of runners, you may see gaits that are similar. When you run professionally, there is less room for "error" or unique wiggles while you're moving forward. Their gaits are pretty efficient. The running forms I saw last weekend were all over the place. Granted, these folks aren't professional runners but they were leaders of the pack nonetheless. None of them ran the same way. It reminded me that there is more to our bodies than movement. Sometimes I think we can get so caught up in symmetry or mobility and we forget that they are just a part of a bigger puzzle. Did you know Usain Bolt, the fastest sprinter in the world, had a leg length discrepancy and didn't wear a heal lift? He is what we would call a good compensator, meaning he and his body learned to be efficient regardless. He was also incredibly sure of himself, which helps when you're a top competitor. I wanted to break down a few things to think about when it comes to human performance. None of these points work in isolation but instead create the totality that is us.

Genetics, Age, and Sex. Genetics. I recently heard this described as "big dumb luck" and I thought it was said perfectly. Our ratio of type 2 (fast-twitch) muscle fibers to type 1 (slow-twitch) muscle fibers is largely genetic. There are more muscle types than this but let's keep it simple. The more type 2 muscle fibers you have, the more power you can generate. This means, your muscles can get bigger, you have more potential to lift heavy things, and you could be a great sprinter. Genetics also determines the quality of other tissue composition, meaning we may naturally be more or less flexible than others. You know those folks that seem to do yoga effortlessly? The folks with more mobility in their tissues tend to drift towards this type of exercise. Genetics can also play a factor on how our various organs work, or how the machine is run, if you will. Type 1 diabetes is a great example. Age is also a factor. As we grow older, our body composition changes with more total body fat that concentrates in the trunk more than the appendages, slower cell devision (slower tissue repair), and slower metabolism (1). Sex is also influential. Males and females display differing characteristics of muscle and fat distribution, which are driven by sex hormones. There are also variances in the amounts of each sex hormone we have that follow a cyclical rise and fall, which all affect performance. This changes as we age.

The Basics. As with everything, it's all about the basics. This includes good quality sleep for 8-9 hours a night, a diet that emphasizes whole foods, daily exercise, ability to manage stress in healthy ways, and a supportive social network. Surprised?

Attitudes and Beliefs. Back to Usain Bolt. Watch any interview with him and he will not hold back in saying he is an amazing runner. Can you imagine what would happen if he didn't think he could be the fastest sprinter in the world? He simply wouldn't be able to do it. In my art class, my teacher said he prefers teaching kids instead of adults because adults listen to the small voice in their head that tells them they can't draw. We've got to check ourselves to catch the messages we are replaying in our heads. On a slightly different note, my favorite ultrarunner Courtney Dauwalter (the best ultrarunner in the world) has a unique view on pain. She often talks about the "pain cave" and when she's in it during a long race, she gets excited. She is curious about how she can work with the discomfort and what opportunities might lie on the other side. Elite competitors often view body pain during competition differently than the rest of us. There is a joke about running that's something along the lines of, "Running is 90% mental and 10% all in your head."

Hard Consistent Work. Our bodies won't rise to the occasion if there is no occasion. Change takes change. Our bones, tendons, muscles, and all the rest need to be stressed in order to build more tissue in response to the stress. When I say stress, I mean physical load, whether it is endurance, resistance, power, mobility, stability, or coordination. Too much too soon and our tissues will fail. Gradual increases in load over time, along with scheduled rest, will encourage tissue adaptation. There is no magic pill or silver bullet. It takes showing up, putting one foot in front of the other, consistently. It is addressing your weaknesses while continuing to nurture your strengths. It is routinely reflecting and making adjustments to your schedule or habits as needed. Like a recent teacher said in a visceral course, "Masters of their craft work their asses off."

Efficiency. This means your body has mobility on a foundation of stability. Sources of stability are the muscles that are closest to our joints, such as our deep abdominal muscles for our spine and the rotator cuff for our shoulder. The roll of these muscles is to engage right before we move or perform a task. If there has been an injury, pain, or surgeries, it has been shown in the research that these stabilizing muscles become less engaged and the peripheral muscles work harder to try to create stability. It has also been shown that these stabilizing muscles don't spontaneously come back online post incident but they will improve if they are trained. That's great news!


If you want to read a really interesting book about human performance, check out Endure by Alex Hutchinson.






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