On the body, natural training, and specificity

Running guru Tinman wrote this on a letsrun thread about Dathan Ritzenhein:

"When you are fit, you are fit; and you race well over variety of distances. To be fit, you have to train in accordance with your body's natural laws. If you race outside your natural range, all you have to do is "touch" on race-pace or tactical training for the event; not focus a great deal of time and energy on it."

This is a wise comment. As I look back over my last training cycle, it is very clear why I did not run my best in my marathon attempt. The reason was simply this: I focused for too long on marathon specificity and got away from the task of "training according to my body's natural laws."

What does this mean? We need to look at the relation between specificity and training that works according to the body's natural laws.

Training according to the body has less to do with the particular sorts of workouts that one does and more to do with the effects of those workouts. This training is sustainable and feeds the body over the long term. Like giving a plant sunshine and water: the main purpose of this sort of training is to grow and develop the body as a runner. The point of this sort of training is not to stress the body so that it produces new capabilities, but to strengthen and feed the runner within. This sort of training is not hard to accomplish: mostly it's a matter of getting out the door and doing the sort of running that is good for you and sustainable over the long haul. Water the plant.

Specific training has a different purpose. To extend our plant metaphor, the effect of specific training is not to feed and nourish the plant as a whole, but to produce a specific quality in the plant by stressing the plant in a certain way through processes of selection. For example, if we want a plant to grow as tall as possible, we may begin trimming its horizontal shoots and cultivating the shoots that tend in a vertical direction. Focusing our attention on this, we can see great results, fairly quickly. Our plant grows upwards. We achieve the quality that we want. But there is a downside here. We have gotten away from the natural laws of the plant's growth and have introduced an artificial exaggeration. The plant is now taller, for sure, but in general it is weaker. It is perhaps more susceptible to wind gusts, and if we continue to trim the horizontal shoots and let only vertical ones grow, our plant will reach its highest possible extension and then topple over, having reached an extension beyond its natural limits.

What's alluring about specific training is the rapid results that we get. We want to short-cut the process through the addition of harsh specific stresses. But too much attention to specificity leaves the body one-dimensional. As an organism, the body's dimensions are mutually beneficial, and even the one dimension that has been selected will suffer if it is not fed and maintained and strengthened by the other dimensions of the body.

A better approach is to train the body over a period of years, while it gradually and imperceptibly grows faster and stronger. Through gentle stresses we can transform our human bodies into runner's bodies, but we must be careful always to develop the body in a sustainable way so that it continues to grow. Quick results are transitory and do not reflect the full strength of the body. The challenge is to train a body that is naturally fast, one that is healthy and robust in its speed.


  1. And race often. Don't worry about good races or bad races--both will happen part of the process. Celebrate the good ones and put the bad ones in the book and move on.

    Also beer, which comes from plants (it all comes full circle!) as post-race recovery drink.

  2. Race often. I'll try to remember that. As soon as my legs are not destroyed anymore.

    Hey nice story about the gray fox.

  3. Good stuff. Nice point from Mike about racing often and not worrying about the bad ones - something I still have to learn.

    Nice reading Jeff - thanks.


  4. Interesting analogy - with enjoyably detailed exposition :)

  5. This makes me think of Geb and how his career has progressed from 1500 through marathon and all the world records he set while increasing distance.

    It's sort of like a boxer that continues to move up in weight class and winning championships along the way. Well, sort of. But boxing at different weight classes does require new skills while still never divorcing from the basics of the sport, much like distance running.

    Nice post.


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