Mental Models for Running


Milo of Croton was a wrestler. According to legend, he started his athletic training as in a peculiar manner: as a youth, he would pick up a little bull calf and carry it around for a bit every day. As the bull grew, he grew stronger, until eventually he could pick up and carry around a full grown bull! The logic of his plan is beautiful in it’s simplicity...until it isn’t.


This plan becomes pretty unpleasant when it doesn’t work for you. Imagine, for example, that you try to carry the calf, and it was pretty doable at first (80 lbs birth-weight). After half a year it started getting really difficult and you could barely walk a few steps with the bull before dropping it. Well before the end of the year he was already tipping the scale at 220 lbs, and despite all the techniques you try, you cannot get the bull off the ground...well short of your 2,000 lb bullish goal! Why didn’t the Milo technique work for you?


Think about trying to drive your car faster. Would the milo technique work? Could you drive your car around a race-track 1 second faster each day? Your skill as a driver would likely improve, but there are so many more components that need upgrading than just your skill alone: you probably need new tires, upgraded engine, different fuel, etc. I don’t know much about cars, but I’m pretty sure racing around a track won’t help you get new tires; you’ve got to get into the shop to do that.


The principle of specificity predicts that  “the closer the training routine is to the requirements of the desired outcome (i.e. a specific exercise task or performance criteria), the better will be the outcome.” So if you want to run a good 5k, your training should look a lot like 5k running in terms of intensity/duration.

While this principle makes a lot of sense, it also isn’t very helpful, especially the more complex the “desired outcome” becomes, in terms of number of variables involved. Think about the car: the  more complex the machine, the more complex the process of upgrading that machine.



Different than a car, however, the body will tend to upgrade itself when you push it harder than it is used to, and it will tend to upgrade itself in line with the way in which you push it (you don't get bigger legs when you bench press). So if you are running a 5k, the body might adapt by focusing mainly on giving you better tires, and that's great! And every time you run a 5k, the body will mainly care about making those tires as good as they can be, and also focus a little on the engine, but won't focus much on upgrading the fuel efficiency. However, in training, there is pretty good evidence that if you also run longer and slower in your training, the body will then work on fuel efficiency even more, and (as long as you don't neglect the shorter harder stuff for too long) your 5k speed will also improve. The key is to get the right mix of improvements for your event, and to focus on improving your personal weaknesses.


If you want to run better (faster or farther), learn everything you can about what happens in your body to run, and everything you can about how the body adapts to run faster or father. Then use this as a mental model to guide how you train.


Otherwise you might try to run a 5 minute mile by running at that pace for as long as you can, then trying to run at that pace a little further every week (it doesn’t work very well).... Or you might mistakenly try to work out and get bigger quads and calves, thinking that big strong legs will help you run faster.... Or you might try to disassociate (distract yourself by thinking of other random dinner) when the going gets tough in a race or hard workout.



Fuel Delivery

Learn about energy system: your body uses different pathways to provide working muscles with energy, grouped broadly into two categories (aerobic and anaerobic). How do you improve this? What would be most beneficial for you and your goal event? [Check out these books for more info: Science of RunningRunning ScienceDaniel's Running Formula]



Learn about the mechanics of running, and which muscles are recruited (or should be recruited for optimal/efficient running). Are bigger muscles even helpful? How does it change for uphill and downhill running? What about trail running? [check out: Anatomy for Runners: Unlocking Your Athletic Potential for Health, Speed, and Injury Prevention or Running: Biomechanics and Exercise Physiology in Practice, 1e]



Learn about optimizing the role of your mind in training and racing: Brain Training For Runners


So if you want to carry a bull

Sometimes lift lighter bulls and walk a long way, and other days lift really heavy bulls without walking at all, and occasionally lift a medium bull and walk a mile. It doesn't matter if you don't keep up with the dramatic rate of a growing bull, as long as you keep improving and you continue to enjoy your bull-carrying!