Post VI: Are we built for sprinting and lifting or for running long distances? Primal and running

The answer to that question is actually quite simple: both, really. Look at your local gym or the athletics championships to see that people are built differently, and more suited for different things. Having said that, I fall on the sprinting and lifting side of things, but not until after years of falling on the other side. So what I want to set out here is two ideas which are based on very similar principles, but which diverge on pretty crucial points, albeit using similar ways of thinking (i.e. antifragility). These are the school that humans are “born to run”, and indeed run long distances, as opposed to the primal living school which advocate short, intense workouts building strength and sprinting, supplemented with low-intensity activity like walking hiking, stand-up paddling and the like.

Let me explain why I moved from one to the other, what they mean, and what might be best for you. From about the age of 20, I started to take a keen interest in ultra-distance running, and even more so after my first marathon in 2009. The running was supplemented with hours of swimming and cycling, taking me to a total of between 13 and 20 hours of endurance sports a week, depending on studies and weather. I was very happy with this arrangement, found my lung capacity to be very high, I enjoyed the endorphin high I got after a run which really pushed me, and especially if I could get out into the wild, and run up mountains. Hill running was a particular fetish of mine, and I was lucky to be living Scotland to sustain it. When I saw my endurance abilities go from strength to strength, the only thing that I seemed to lack was sprinting ability, but this didn’t phase me much, since I didn’t much care for playing high-intensity sports or anything which needed me to be able to run fast.

I began to notice a few things change over the years, however, and a big change came when I damaged the ligaments in my knee and I was unable to run for 6 months. Or walk properly for 6 weeks. The doctor prescribed an oil to put on my knee, the effects of which were purely part of the placebo effect, but after 6 months I started to dip my toe back into running waters. I was more or less successful, getting up a good average 10 km time and so on, but the knee issue soon returned. This time around I was out of running for 3 months, until I stumbled upon a book at Colorado Airport called Born to Run by Christopher McDougal. It describes how people have evolved in a very particular way to run long distances, and how anatomically well-designed we are for this. He suggests, following studies, that hunter-gatherers in human history would have stalked prey down over very long distances at a gentle running pace, slowly exhausting the animal over several hours, since humans are better adapted for this kind of hunting than direct conflict involving strength (humans are pretty hopeless in this department compared with most other animals we seek to eat – just look at our soft skin, or compare your strength to that of an elk!) Without weapons and tools for hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary history, the slow, animal-exhausting hunt was the preferred method of getting meat. Although this seemed outlandish, a South African researcher living with a tribe of hunter-gatherers in the Botswana Kalahari observed this same behaviour.

Convinced by this evolutionary theory, I read on in McDougal’s book to discover the evolution of the foot and how our ancestors would have been barefoot or nearly barefoot for hundreds of thousands of years before Nike brought along the cushioned sole in the 1970s, which, it is argued, is the cause of bad running form and the subsequent injuries which so many runners complain about. With this determined in my mind, I removed my shoes and in the cold Scottish autumn I set out into a nearby grassy field. Besides the stone-strewn path down to the field, this was a big revelation, a real eureka moment for me. One week I was plodding agonizingly along a tarmac road, the next I was whipping through a lush grassy (wet and cold) field without even a trace of pain. More so walking back from the field with feet safely numbed for the stones. I hastily leapt into telling everybody what I had discovered, and started making my own “barefoot” sandals, since I couldn’t afford Vibram’s infamous Five Fingers. I initially started with the inner tube of a tire, cut it to the shape of my foot, punched some holes in it, and used some unnecessarily complicated lacing to tie them to my foot. They were really dreadful. In comes a make of sandal which a guy in Colorado had developed, made to measure, simple lacing and guaranteed for thousands of miles. These were excellent and I strongly recommend them: Xero shoes is the company if you want to check them out.

My love for running was truly rekindled, especially when everyone was asking about and looking askance at my unusual footwear. I was now living in Cape Town, South Africa and would run with these shoes up local peaks (although I never dared Table Mountain in them!) This continued for many months until I began to realise something else which I now associate with long-distance sports: I was low on energy generally and I would get sick often (common colds took me down regularly, especially when living in Scotland). Besides the sore knee, this is what brought me to the primal school.

Primal or evolutionary fitness uses very similar trains of thought to the “born to run” school, but takes different conclusions. For those in the “born to run” camp, hunter-gatherers would have been running often, exhausting their prey thanks to the evolutionary advantages which humans developed over other animals. Despite one modern hunter-gatherer tribe being observed to hunt like this, this is one tribe and not definitive proof. The anatomical proof is also suggestive of good abilities to run long distances, but again it is not definitive, and doesn’t exclude other ways of living. On the other hand, nor do the theories put forward by the primal school, such as authors like Mark Sisson and Art de Vany provide definitive information on exactly how our ancestors would have lived. Primal living suggests that humans are born to move in a certain way, and evolved to do so over hundreds of thousands of years, namely walking, sprinting, lifting heavy things, throwing, climbing and swimming. Low-intensity jogs may well have been part of it, but the argument goes that this kind of exercise would drain a hunter of energy, and if he was to encounter a threat, like a giant cat with big pointy teeth and paws the size of his face, he would not have quite as much energy to sprint away than if he had been walking. Think of how exhausted you feel after a long run. Do you think you would be able to get up and sprint afterwards? Such activities would leave your ancestors very vulnerable and exposed. For me, this makes more logical sense, and corresponds more with modern hunter-gatherer lifestyles which have been studied (such as in the rainforests of the Amazon and Papua New Guinea, although of course there is not a lot of room to run there anyway!). The fossil evidence also suggests that humans were stronger before the advent of agriculture (by way of the marks left on bones formed by strong muscles and the tendons with which they were attached). How many long-distance runners do you know with big bulging muscles? Not very many, I dare say.

It is for these reasons that it seems to make more sense that, from an evolutionary standpoint, humans are born to walk, sprint, lift and climb. Low-intensity running may well have formed a part of life, but not the bulk of it, as those in the “born to run” camp suggest. Added to this, from my own personal experience, since I have taken up the primal living philosophy I feel a great deal more energetic, I am and look more athletic, my skin is healthier and the tartar build up on my teeth seems to vanish every day. For me, this is enough convincing, but I encourage everybody to experiment. If your running consists of a few kilometres around the blog every week, you’re unlikely to suffer any ill effects, besides boredom. But if you are convinced that you can do better from 10 minutes of sprinting every week, give it a try, and let me know. You will be pleasantly surprised. If you are running much longer and harder, I suggest taking a look into changing things. The runner’s high is an addictive thing, and not something you want to forego easily, but you can bet a 30 minute sprint session will get your blood pumping, will try your body more and bring much bigger elation at the end. I don’t want to bring an end to endurance sports, but I do want people to experiment, note progress and get back to me!


Post V: Your body is comfortably volatile!

Volatility has very negative connotations. If you look at the business pages on a given day, you will find talk about volatile markets somewhere, which cause problems somewhere else. It’s currently to be found in China. But as was discussed in the last post, natural complex systems are volatile, and this needs to be accepted. A good place to start is your own body. When you begin to consider the nature of yourself, this will be amplified to other things. If you understand volatility, you will apply it to your own body, which will affect the way you eat and live, the way you source your food, the way you consider your career, and the way you frame your lifestyle. It’s very exciting and something I want to share with you, particularly through ideas of primal living.

Post II looked at the basics of primal living, the idea of embracing our evolution and moving and eating as we are designed to do, and as we do best. This involves lifting heavy things, exercising intensively and sprinting, all at random; your diet should be based around fruits and vegetables, and meat and fish. The focus of the meals you eat should revolve around this, shifting away from “base foods” like pasta, rice and bread, which are nutritionally weak, and often used simply to fill bellies. This will be the subject of a future post. Part of the essence of the primal philosophy is to move away from rigid control: eating three square meals a day is not necessarily the best for your body, even if it fits well with your working hours; going to the gym for exactly an hour a day may seem like progress, but your body will react much better to random, intense workouts, specifically not involving jogging on the treadmill.

Modern living seems intent on organising lives, taking away the edge. On my Samsung phone, for example, there is an app for healthy living. It is very clever, and tracks my steps (I have no idea how it does this, and does creep me out a bit, making me feel as if there’s a Google satellite taking a very keen interest in my location) and I can enter all kinds of things like how much coffee I consume, my calorie intake, weight, UV exposure, blood glucose, sleep, heart rate, stress and on and on and on. These can certainly be useful things to know, but when you begin to regiment your life in such a way, you begin to hack away at what your body really excels at: it takes volatility on the chin and reacts in the best way possible to it. If, for example, you take your app and record your food and calories consumption to balance out the calories expended, eating three square meals a day and running off any excess, your body will not react in the way you want it to. You might lose a bit of weight, but the regimentation will stifle your body’s natural reactions, and will also stifle your enjoyment of life! Sticking to such regimes is not only boring for your mind, but you will find that your body will be much better off when it is subjected to swings in consumption and expenditure. As I write this, I have not eaten for 18 hours, and I will not eat for at least another 6, maybe more. But when I do eat, I know what I’m going to have: an enormous salad bowl filled with lettuce, onions, tomato, broccoli, cauliflower, ham, cheese, tuna, egg, carrot, beetroots, palm hearts and herbs. When that has been digested, I’m going to have a steak with lots of fat around the edges, topped with two eggs fried in butter, and with a side of aubergine and courgette, also fried in butter, and some boiled cabbage. The amount I eat today will be more than satisfactory, although my stomach is growling now (not helped by writing about the delights it is to expect later!) The extreme swing which my body is being subjected to is being shown again and again to provide health benefits. Check out these links to see what you can see: Once again, it is the body benefitting from stress.

There is increasing science behind it, but from my personal experience, every time I try this fasting, I enjoy the buzz which my body creates at around about hour 18 without food (that is to say, right now). The energy which my body is giving off is better than a caffeine boost, and my mind is pinging ideas in every direction. When I finally do get food, I know I will feel sleepy afterwards, but this is the same as was discussed in a previous post: if your body is put under stress, it will benefit from this stress, so long as it is given sufficient rest.

I advocate such randomness in life, which modern thinking often tries to get around: three square meals a day, 5 hours a week at the gym, 8 hours a day at work, 5 days a week. The immediate comparison is with a machine, like the factory lines which produce the material things we enjoy. Current thinking all too often applies what works with machinery to people and the systems they are a part of, rather than treating them as the complex, non-machines they are. Bodybuilders or rugby players are often called “machines”, as a term of endearment. But machines do not like to be subject to volatility, because they deteriorate thanks to their fragile nature. Humans and complex systems thrive under volatility and need to be subjected to such. Think of your body this way and you will begin to see results in terms of your physical energy, your body shape and your mental health. Using primal and evolutionary biology as your framework, embrace the fact that you are not in control and act according to the ups and downs of your body, tune in and react!

When we understand that our own bodies are antifragile, that they benefit from stress, and we accept that we need volatility to excel, then we can easily transfer this to other complex systems, particularly when you think about the effects your decisions will have on a broader scale: the food supply, business, economics, the legal system. It is all related, and this blog seeks to join the dots.

Post IV: Volatility and Intervention

The last 3 posts have set out how this blog is going to look and explaining some ideas which are perhaps alien to a lot of people. What I want to be able to show is that individual lifestyle choices can go a very long way on a large-scale, but that what people do and how they approach problems is not reflected on national levels, the level of the complex system. I want to demonstrate the natural volatility and randomness of all complex systems, from the micro level of human biology and fitness to large-scale systems like the economy, the law, food and energy supplies, and how they are all inter-related. To do this, it is important to discuss more about the topic of volatility and intervention, and more specifically when to intervene, and when to accept things are out of your control.

Modern living is full of examples of often stifling intervention. By trying to smooth out the jagged edges of the world, and to remove unknowns, volatility and stressors, the antifragile (see previous post) nature of complex systems is repressed, only to reappear in much bigger, often catastrophic guises. This kind of action is often based on an unwavering belief that humans can control what is around them, a very naive belief indeed. Complex systems, even man-made ones, are too complex, too varied to possibly fully understand. Pieces can be put together, but they way in which they interact as a whole system is impossible for one mind to grasp. Think of any kind of financial investment you might make: you can make educated guesses, but ultimately nobody knows whether these investments will pay off, and nobody knows whether a boom or a bust is coming.

Or think of the complications when treating ailments in your body. The Hippocratic Oath imparts some wisdom on the situation: “primum non nocere”, first, do no harm. For a very long time in human history, doctors have been very bad at treating people, and through practices such as blood-letting have often killed more people through their interventions than they would have saved. The beginning of institutionalised hospitals, although well-intentioned and ultimately very useful to us today, marked sky-rocketing deaths from “hospital fever”. The healers were causing the harm. It is only in recent history that this has been accepted, but the good news is that it has been! The continuing issue in medicine is that of agency. Think of the number crunchers at big pharmaceutical companies with no direct relationship with the person in need of the medicine, but with a direct relationship with the company’s profits. The concern is not with the health of the patient, but his or her job is on the line when it comes to selling pills, possibly to the detriment of the patient, causing more harm than benefit through their intervention.

Take also economic intervention. The huge complexities of the system ensure that it cannot be predicted or controlled, but people try nonetheless. It is volatile, and thrives from this volatility, but economists try again and again to break off the jagged edges, smooth it down, like a polished stone. The depression which began in 2007, the effects of which are still being felt 8 years later, was in my opinion caused by the interventionist economic policies of the likes of Alan Greenspan and Gordon Brown, who promised to end the volatile cycle of boom and bust, or, to put it in the language of this blog, they denied the antifragility of complex systems, and did more harm than good with their intervention. Just as it is necessary for small forest fires to occur from time to time to burn out the most flammable material in order to avoid a much more catastrophic fire in the future, complex systems require smaller units to fail for the whole to succeed (and hopefully learn from the mistakes to success next time!) Volatility is a natural and necessary element to dispose of the more fragile parts of the system for the whole to succeed. But let me make something very clear here and say that I do not support a ruthless “winner-takes-all” or “dog-eat-dog” world where those who do not succeed economically are doomed to failure to be scooped up by stronger competitors. There need to be social safety nets to make sure that those who fall victim to natural volatility have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and improve upon them. Support is necessary for the very reason that these systems are so volatile: humans are at the mercy of things we cannot possibly comprehend, and we need to take actions to give us support and ways out when things do not go as planned. The point I am making here, however, is that if you try to suppress this inherent volatility, all you do is make way for something much worse.

So we can see that intervention can cause problems when it is applied to volatile, complex, antifragile systems. Our culture is to try to take things under control to, as mentioned in the last paragraph, ensure that the volatile nature of things does not affect us. And to say that intervention is bad can bring a lot of misunderstandings. It can be taken as simply doing nothing as chaos reigns, sitting back and doing whatever is coming to you. This does not sit well with human nature, nor is it the point I am trying to make. My point is that humans cannot control these systems by trying to end volatility, but we can prepare properly by accepting their nature. Intervention to change this nature is very naive, but intervention to work with this volatility, to ensure that either you benefit from it or are supported when you fail as a result of it, is the aim. It applies to many things, from the economy, the legal system, the food supply, the energy supply, and your own body. The next post will go back to this with more on primal living.

Blog Post III: An Introduction to Antifragility

This part of the blog will introduce an idea which is not so well known, but will ultimately be the main thread to tie the ideas of this blog together. Antifragility is a concept which many people (especially grandmothers) grasp intuitively, but until Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book by the same name, there has been no word for it. It is the antithesis of fragility, a word used to describe something which deteriorates as a result of harm. Ask yourself this: when you post a package which breaks easily, you will want to attach a label saying “fragile” onto it, so what label would you put on a package which will actually benefit from being mishandled, and thrown about? It’s not  simply “robust”, since even robust things don’t actually benefit from harm, nor is it “resilient” for the same reason. A new word has been coined to describe something which benefits from harm – antifragile – and there are many systems to which it applies.

First off, let’s tie it in with primal living, the subject of the last introductory post. I mentioned that it is more important to have brief, intense exercise than to go for quantity, drudging along concrete paths for hours. The recent popularity of HIIT (high intensity interval training) and Crossfit reflect this. It is well established that exercise places stress on the body, and that the body reacts to this stress. Not only does it react, however, but it overreacts, it overcompensates, and as a result provides you with bigger muscles, better able to answer the same and more stress the next time, provided you take adequate rest. So the stress – the harm – is actually beneficial to the body. When you lift weights, you literally tear your muscle fibres (ouch) but they return stronger. Another simplified, but well-known, example of this is vaccination. You put the immune system under stress, and it overreacts so that next time it will be able to deal with even more.

Another example provided by Taleb (and I paraphrase him) is being placed under acute stress, followed by sufficient recovery time. Say you are sitting in your living room, watching television, and suddenly a lion leaps through the door. Your body will send out a lot of signals putting you under a lot of stress, your fight or flight response pinging throughout your body. Assuming you survive this incident (preferably with photographic, triumphant evidence) and then are given time to relax with some beer or some soothing tea, your body will benefit from the immense stress, even after the buzz of the adrenaline has worn off. The hormones coursing through your body benefit it. “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”, yes? On the other hand, moderate stress does not make you stronger, but it will kill you. The daily stress of modern living, whether it is being stuck in traffic, filling out monthly business reports, tax forms etc., these provide stresses, but not of the fight or flight variety. You cannot run away from you tax returns or punch your boss. This moderation in stress, caused by a smoothing out of our social systems provokes the release of harmful reactions, but without the necessary recovery time, which ultimately slowly kills you. “Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess”, as Oscar Wilde puts it.

Compared to our primal ancestors, modern life stifles the fight or flight response in our bodies, smoothing out our days in the name of comfort and stability, but slowly wearing us out. There’s no suggestion here that all 7 billion humans should return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and face threats to life and limb on a near daily basis in order to provoke their antifragile nature. That would be silly. But we can adapt: welcome the volatile, accept randomness and put yourself in situations where you are more in step with your intuitive reactions. Travelling is one such way to put yourself in unusual, often inexplicable situations, but you might find that you can find the same by taking a walk around your local area! This will be the subject of a later post: “Does modern life stifle human nature?”

So we can see that antifragility and primal living are closely connected in this regard, but antifragility goes further, and provides the link between the subjects of primal living and social structure, food and energy supplies, legal frameworks, jurisprudence and many other seemingly disparate topics which should be considered together more often than they are.

How can we differentiate between was is antifragile and what is not? We have seen that antifragile things benefit from harm (to a certain extent), and we have seen that this applies to organic things (like you), but not to non-organic things (like a fridge). But we can take it further, as Taleb points out, to differentiate between the complex (antifragile) and the non-complex (fragile). A machine is non-complex, since it can be switched on and off; a natural system like the human body, or the legal system, or the energy supply, is complex. There is no on-off switch. So antifragile, complex systems extend to essentially anything you care to mention which cannot be controlled. The trouble is that attitudes are all too often to treat the economy, law, and even individual human bodies as if they were mechanical and easily controlled. I saw an advert for a Crossfit gym the other day saying “Other gyms own machines…We make them”. You are not a machine! You are so much more complex than that. If you use a machine, it will slowly deteriorate; if you use your body, it will slowly improve. A machine is fragile, but complex systems are antifragile and benefit from randomness, volatility and harm. In order to benefit from the inherently antifragile nature of complex systems, they need to be accepted for what they are, and treated accordingly.

When politicians, bankers, economists and other members of similar branches seek to control the complex, to iron out the wrinkles and to suppress volatility and randomness in order to ensure stability, all they achieve is to ensure a bigger blow out in the future. In order to succeed, the antifragile needs volatility and randomness, and to deprive these systems of such is to set yourself up for bigger problems. This will be discussed in further blog posts about dealing with volatility and randomness in big complex systems.

This I hope explains the main foundations of antifragility and how it applies to this blog! There will be many branches of discussion stemming from this, which will include:

  • Give me volatility, not stability
  • Embracing lack of control, and the zen attitude
  • Travel and volatility
  • Don’t control, let it go
  • “Well that was totally random”