Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Training Advice from Chuck Norris

"Thank you for letting me talk to you, children.  I am not Chuck Norris, as many of you suggest.  I admit, Walker Texas Ranger and I share a homeland in America  We also have red beards and are white men.  But I am not Chuck Norris, nor am I a relative of his."

"Today, I will talk to you about the disease Aids."

"Yes, I'm American, and you sometimes call Aids "American Invention to Discourage Sex." I am here to say that America did not invent Aids.  It probably comes from monkeys, not Americans.  

"Aids is a bad disease. This is what Aids does:  when you get Aids, it attacks the soldiers of the body, little men who protect you.  When it has killed the soldiers of the body, then Aids opens the doors so that other diseases come in and start to hurt you and you grow thin, you get tuberculosis, and you die unless you take special drugs which my country, America, is now sending here to Africa to help."

"Children, you can get Aids from having sex, so try your best to not have sex, and if someone makes you have sex, you should tell the police.  Thank you and God bless you."

Chuck Norris explains sex to four hundred children in Magudu, South Africa
As all translations go, this may or may not be exactly transliterated.  Twelve weeks of studying a language may be all some people need to deliver a lecture on sex to children in that language, but I am not one of these people.

Giving a talk about sex to children in a foreign language ranks among the most awkward acts of my extremely awkward life, far worse than that time I was found to be gleefully devouring pork rinds on the steps of a mosque, and much worse, even, than the time my john thomas peeped out the side of my swim trunks when I got out of the pool after being lapped in my first 50m freestyle competitive swimming event.

Let me further explain several other factors, beyond the obvious issues, this was a doomed venture.  I was a white man in an all-black bantustan in post-apartheid South Africa. The news at the time was dominated by clips from Iraq and Afghanistan, of my country killing women and children.  Explaining how what we were doing was connected with what happened on 9/11 was quite a challege--as was the popularity of T-shirts bearing images of Osama bin Laden.

To top it off, I had a bad case of bilharzia (a type of parasite that causes the "running tummy" in layman's terms) that prompted startling flights toward suspected locations of outhouses.

Finding siSwati words to describe HIV was a further challenge. My advisor Lucas, shown in the picture, to my right, suggested I use the phrase amasodjas wa mtimba--soldiers of the body. 

I used it, but at the time I thought it was imprecise.  Later, I came to think that maybe that phrase was the best part of the little speech.  Unlike the other parts, where I denied both relation to Chuck Norse and to conspiracy theories about Aids, at least "soldiers of the body" provided a vivid image that might prompt a vague understanding of how Aids works, and it might contribute, in some way, toward healthier choices.

My hope, thinking back, is that I told a story--what I'll call macrotheory--for the average kid there, one that provided a working understanding of the virus.  That was all that was needed.  How it debilitates antibodies--what I'll call microtheory--was unneeded. 

When it comes to theories and ideas that change and guide us, we cling to macrotheory.  In the past, these were called myths, but in our reductionist society, where everything is just machinery of the universe, just the result of tiny chemical and mechancial reactions, we lack a word to describe the theories that guide us, because most of us don't claim any.

And yet, we need them and, whether we acknowledge them or not, we follow them: stories and theories that insert meaning and value and habit into our lives.  Macrotheories.  We tell them to children.  Also to bike racers, I think.  And this is because we need a working knowledge, not so-called scientific knowledge.*

*I bring this up, in part, because of great comments by Rollin' Polish made in response to my last post.

Microtheories debunked

The examples below relate to riding a bike, but they could be about anything.  

Lactic Acid
Suppose you raced in the 1980s. You were told that the pain you suffered, the burning in your muscles, was the result of acid in your muscles.  This was the most prominent microtheory of the last century--the lactic acid  theory of fatigue.  They'd done the work on frogs all the way back in the 1920s, zapping dead frog legs with electricity, then measuring the lactic acid.  

Oh, the chemical explanation was all there:  the acid from exertion essentially "pickled" the muscles.

The lactic acid theory of fatigue, still cited by dear Paul Sherwin when commenting on the Tour, is now considered inaccurate.  Muscle fatigue itself is now considered "one of the great unsolved mysteries in physiology."

Another dear theory of exercise science has to do with oxygen production.  There's some kerfluffle over on a chat board about Lars Peter Nordhaug, a cyclist with a measured VO2 max in the 90s.  One outraged commenter suggests that, if reports of Nordhaug's 92 VO2 max prove true, "he'd have been winning the Tour de France last year."

This is a perfect example of misplaced faith in microtheory.  Good VO2 does not necessarily mean good performance.  

As Tim Noakes points out in Lore of Running, while the best runners tend to have higher VO2 max values than average people, there is great variance between them.  Derek Clayton with a very low VO2 max of 69.7, for instance, held the world marathon record (I've written about this before).

Other microtheories
Just this month I wrote about a Dutch attempt to debunk the notion that haemoglobin matters (as in, "yeah, yeah, Lance et al doped, but it didn't matter!").  While I doubt their microtheoretical approach, it's primarily evidence from observation--the macrotheory--that leads me to disagree with the Dutch.  As in, holy crap, EPO made people go up mountains at 7 w/kg!  That's insane!  

Other complicated microtheories bring up mitochondrial and capillary density.  Cellular acidosis.  Decreased/increased testosterone, cortisone, growth hormone, or other substance produced in the body.  

This article in Bike Radar, in which we're supposed to believe slightly less sugary drink ingestion bumps 15-minute power 54 watts, is another example of questionable microtheory.  The worst part about it is that we're being sold something, and it's our inability to deal with the microtheory behind it--osmality and performance--that makes it difficult to swallow.  The only thing to do, other than accepting a 50-watt deficit, is to go out and blow cash on a slightly less sugary drink mix.

While I'm skeptical of microtheories, I don't advocate ignoring all microtheories.  This year, for instance, I adopted sweet spot training precisely because Allen and Coggan recommend it, citing measurable changes to the body at the microlevel.  I did it because it was supposed to make me go faster (the macrotheory), but I also was moved by their chart showing the microtheoretical benefits to arterial and mitochondrial density, and so forth.

Macrotheories lauded

The simplest way to figure out if something makes you faster is not to look at a microscope; it's results.  That's why clinical trials that test a new training method or nutrition always involve people on bikes trying to go as fast as they can; they sometimes also involve people giving blood or tissue samples.

The guy who personifies the macrotheoretical approach, to me, is Graeme Obree (see The Obree Way).

Obree was fast by any measure.  You could in fact say he was fast because he measured.  He measured his speed frequently, in varied conditions, on varied bike shapes and positions (one of the benefits to building your own bike is that you can rebuild it as many times as you want), and following varied training approaches.  

When trainers were still recommending endless miles, Obree at 17 years old added interval training--and went from a middling time trialler to Scottish junior champ.  (He kept doing long rides, by the way.)

Rather than rely on the advice of "experts," many of the hawking products, Obree relied (and often made) his own plans and tools.

Obree with remnant of pot used in making of "Beastie"
This is not to say that Obree's approach was unthoughtful; it was incredibly well planned and creatively conceived.  He trained using the scientific method rather than relying on the testimony of scientists.

I am not so different from African schoolchildren in my need for stories and symbols to guide me, whether on the bike or off.  I suspect most people aren't.  Some of the most profound scientific theories stir us because they establish real characters and relationships between things.

Einstein's special relativity for instance simply establishes a relationship between everything relative to the speed of light, which never changes.  That is macrotheory at its most beautiful.  Thankfully, there are macrotheories more elegant and profound than my own, of the "soldiers of the body."

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