Do You Think Linearly About Running?

In running, there are rarely black or white, binary, or simple issues. Caveats and nuance impact every coach’s decisions.

Runners

You’ve probably heard a coach chuckle after saying “it depends” to one of your running questions. It’s the classic coaches answer because exercise science and training theory are complex. Definitive answers to complex issues are rare.

Regular podcast listeners will know that our guest coaches are always answering, “Well, it depends”…

But some runners display classic linear thinking about the sport. It’s endemic not just to running, but every area of life.

Linear thinking, in the way that we’re using it today, means that your thinking is like a line. It is sequential and step-by-step.

In government, there are many examples of being a linear thinker:

  • Lower taxes are good, higher taxes are bad
  • Less corporate regulation is good, more regulation is bad
  • Less immigration is good, more immigration is bad

As you read through those examples, a small voice inside your head might be thinking, “Aren’t these positions over-simplified? Where’s the middle ground?”

And your intuition would be right! Clearly, there’s more nuance at work in complex areas like the tax system. After all, if the government collects either 0% or 100% of your income as tax revenue, there are going to be problems!

The problem with this style of thinking is that most issues exist along a spectrum where both ends of that spectrum are ill-advised (just like either 0% or 100% tax rates). The ideal scenario exists somewhere in the middle.

Let’s see how this applies to running.

Linear Thinking and Running

In running, linear thinking continues:

  • More minimalism is best – to the point of exclusively running barefoot
  • More mileage is better, less mileage is worse (or the CrossFit version: all easy running is pointless, replace it with intensity!)
  • I want a BQ, so I must focus on exclusively racing marathons

Here’s a linear graph representing the “more mileage is better” argument:

Linear Mileage

Less is less and more is more!

But at what point do the benefits of higher mileage outweigh the rewards? If more is truly more, why don’t elite athletes run 200, 300, or even 400 miles per week?

The answer, of course, is that we can’t think linearly about mileage. This graph is more accurate:

NonLinear Mileage

Here, we understand that there’s a sweet spot somewhere in the middle. There’s such a thing as too little mileage but also too many miles.

More nuanced thinkers are nonlinear thinkers. They understand the world is more complex than “more is good, less is worse.”

We can see this concept at work with barefoot running as well:

NonLinear Minimalism

We want to avoid the extreme of running exclusively in motion control shoes but also the extreme of only running barefoot. While you’ll find runners occupying both ends of this spectrum, they’re not high performing runners most of us should emulate.

This idea can be applied to virtually any area of running like workouts, minimalism, strength training, mileage, and even long runs.

How to Apply Nonlinear Thinking to Running

This concept is borrowed from How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking. But the author admits this insight isn’t new. In ancient Rome, Horace famously said:

Est modus in rebus, sunt certi denique fines, quos ultra citraque nequit consistere rectum.

In English: “There is a proper measure in things. There are, finally, certain boundaries short of and beyond which what is right cannot exist.”

This article is a caution against extremism and a recognition that balance, moderation, and restraint are often more productive.

You can apply this concept to your training in many ways:

  • Ask yourself if a new idea is extreme or balanced
  • Avoid binary thinking of “yes/no”, “black/white”, “good/bad”, or “more is more, less is less” (the truth is usually somewhere in the middle)
  • Exercise science is complex; easy answers are probably too good to be true

If you want help building a training program that takes balance into consideration, Strength Running offers a variety of courses, programs, and coaching services to bring your running to the next level.

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Comments

  1. Jonathan Sensenig says:

    Jason,

    As always, good stuff. It continues to amaze how you provide such a wealth of knowledge and content to such a vast audience and will likely respond to my request or comment personally.

    In this you have demonstrated the answer to the linear thinking question.

    For example, If I run a bunch of miles but only 10% of those miles were quality, then I probably would have been better off running just that 10% quality miles. (by quality miles, I am referring to those that are run for the terrain, slopes or effort.)

    As runners, we know there is no substitute for constant, on purpose effort, and hard work. But know also that overwork can thwart your very goals you are looking to achieve.

    • Thank you Kevin! I might disagree with you though. If you run a bunch of mileage (let’s just say 40 miles per week) with a workout where 4 miles were fast, then we’re at your 10% speed figure. But to *only* run those fast miles wouldn’t be nearly as effective as doing it with all that easy mileage. After all, roughly 10-20% of your mileage should be fast. All else is easy and does you a lot of good.

  2. Tom Averill says:

    I agree with the concept of “the sweet spot”. But in training, I usually miss days, and when something must be sacrificed due to time, it is my speed training. So I often end up with higher mileage and less speed work and strength training

    That’s just the way it is.

    • Of course, we’re just talking about the ideal scenario here. When life happens, life happens…

    • Aaron Blasyak says:

      I would actually argue the “missing a scheduled run, reschedule the week” is a perfect example of nonlinear thinking (or at least nonbinary). Binary or black/white thinking would be: I missed x scheduled run I have ruined my plan, race training is ruined. Or some other all or nothing mentality. Constantly assessing the real world of what happens is to practice non-all or nothing thinking.

  3. stephen sadd says:

    I am about to turn 60 years old and I run 6 days a week and average around 55 miles a week. I normally do 2 weeks high of 65 miles then 3 week 49 miles. I do 2 speed workouts a week and 1 long run.
    My long run is 16-18 miles a week.
    Both my effort session takes up around 12 miles. So have I got the structure right ??

  4. Aaron Blasyak says:

    The “sweet spot” graphic you have is what we call a u-shaped curve. Sometimes this is called diminishing marginal returns (they graph the same but conceptually can denote different phenomena).

    I think your point here is great. I try to live by the motto progress not perfection. This can be applied to many areas of life. I often see / hear this when it comes to eating well. People go ugh too hard and just give up. Whereas if you control what you can when you can?, it can buffer the less than ideal times of indulging. Exercise can follow the same principle.

  5. Michael Karpaty says:

    Superb food for thought Jason. I think with experience comes knowledge, I’ve been running from scratch for almost three years and am less than a week from my first marathon. I could start fast but won’t, I could try for a personal best at the half way mark but won’t and I could latch onto someone who is going at a perfect pace for me and I will. I have realised that the mental side is as important as the physical for me. I think most runners new to the challenge do think in linear terms but as I said experience makes for a better overall more rounded runner. Saying that there was no need for me to run 54 half marathons in the last 25 months as part of my training but I can be dogmatic about wanting to achieve my goals despite being 56 years old. I appreciate all your advice and wish i had come across this site at the beginning of my journey. Thank you and keep them coming.

  6. Kenny Finch says:

    I agree that not everything is set in stone. My philosophy is to use plans as guidelines, not rigid rules. I do feel good about meeting goals, however I appreciate flexibility as well. I would say listen to your body, put forth your best effort and be smart. Thanks Jason for the thought provoking post today.

  7. Greg Norton says:

    I don’t want to rain on the parade here, but most of this is basic common sense. Maybe younger runners push the envelope trying extreme programs and learn the hardway when injuries occur.

    I’m also wondering if the Crossfit craze will slow down when injuries due to overuse become more common.

    Still, good reminders to always look for the sweet spot in training.

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