Training in the Age of Energy

Who can doubt that we’ve entered an Age of Energy?

Few of the inventions we now take for granted existed 100 years ago. Electricity? Air travel? Radio? Nope. In 1908, these technologies were in their infancy. Paved roads? Few existed outside of cities.

In 1894, Sri Yukteswar Giri, a yoga master in Bengal, India, published a small book, The Holy Science, which explained, based on ancient tradition, that the world is presently at the start of the second of four ascending “ages,” the first of which was characterized by ignorance of all but material realities. Now, he said, we are moving into an “age of energy”:

With the advance of science, the world began to be covered with railways and telegraphic wires. By the help of steam engines, electric machines, and many other instruments, fine matters were brought into practical use, although their nature was not clearly understood. In 1899…the true [age of energy] of 2000 years will commence and will give to mankind in general a thorough understanding of the electricities and their attributes.

“But what’s that got to do with Forty-Niner football?” you may ask.

Lots. Bill Walsh’s innovative style of football, which was based on applying the least energy for the greatest gain, primarily using high-percentage short passes, changed football forever. The “West Coast Offense,” which was initially derided as sissified because it didn’t apply brute force to overpower the opposing team’s defenses, was incredibly successful – it brought the 49ers five Super Bowl championships, three under Bill Walsh.

West Coast football was exciting, particularly as executed by Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young. It was football re-energized, at least nominally freed from brute materialistic consciousness.

“But, what’s that got to do with running?” you wonder.

Again, a very great deal.

Within my lifetime, sports training has changed tremendously. When I was a high school sophomore in 1960, having my nose regularly bloodied by guards and tackles who outweighed me by 100 pounds, coaches were still preaching a smash-mouth, head-on, fundamentalist brand of the football religion. I recall a practice where Bruce Fassett, my best friend, and I faced off, and encouraged by Coach Paisola, did an all-out, head-on tackle drill that left us both, I’m sure, with permanent brain damage; which is why you’re able to read these ideas today. (Thank goodness for the Internet, which gives an equal voice to the cranially impaired.)

Today’s coaches are smarter. With Bill Walsh leading the way, first coaches in the NFL, then at the college and high-school levels, realized that it’s silly to go through the opposing team’s defenses, when you can more easily go over or around them, with less energy and reduced risk of injury.

Soon, the 49ers found it difficult to hold onto their assistant coaches, who were wooed away by lucrative offers of head-coaching jobs with other teams. It was a diaspora, as a stream of Niner assistants packed their bags and emigrated to Denver, Minneapolis, Green Bay, and points east, where they, in turn, taught the West Coast game to the next generation.

Meanwhile, the training of runners was changing, too. In the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, old-world coaches from Germany and Hungary pushed runners through brutal interval workouts. Mihaly Igloi, Laszlo Tabori, Waldemar Gerschler, and Franz Stampfl brooked no back-chat from their athletes, who were expected to follow the day’s rigid interval schedule to the letter, without complaint or questioning.

Then, in the 1960s, Bill Bowerman at the University of Oregon and Arthur Lydiard in New Zealand quietly nurtured a generation of runners who would blow the interval-trained athletes away. Bowerman was initially mocked by other coaches, who laughed at his “hard/easy” system, which aimed at applying each runner’s energies efficiently, with respect for his individual talents.

Lydiard’s runners, meanwhile, were considered freaks for training like marathon runners instead of track speedsters. But the mockers fell silent when the Oregon and New Zealand teams began dominating the distance events at the NCAA championships and Olympics.

The old assumption was that the body would do whatever a runner’s will could impose on it: the hardest-training runner, the one who could endure the most pain, would win. The new way said that each body is unique; thus Bowerman assigned Steve Prefontaine harder workouts than Kenny Moore, because Moore’s body needed more time to recover. By tuning their training to their individual abilities, Bowerman helped both runners make the most of their talents.

Training isn’t only about bashing the body with the will, as Alberto Salazar’s heroic but health-destroying efforts at Boston and New York demonstrated. Today’s marathon champions train smarter – the Kenyans train very hard when it’s called for, but very easy when it isn’t. Joe Henderson tells how he was able to keep up easily during a recovery run with a group of Kenyans who were staying at the same hostel before the New York Marathon, and how the next day the Africans ran three minutes per mile faster.

The greatest improvements come by using energy efficiently. As Timothy Noakes, MD observed in Lore of Running, it’s always best to try to get the maximum training effect from the least possible effort. Training that increases, preserves, and wisely applies energy is good; training that wastes, depletes, or mis-applies energy is bad.

Energy-based training is simple to understand and apply. When you run, check your energy. If you “listen” carefully, your body will tell you how long and hard it can train safely. When you feel energetic, your body and mind will be eager to train, but when you’re overtrained or simply tired, your mind and body will only want to shuffle.

Training is simple: do lots of slow- to medium-paced running to build endurance, and do a little speedwork. Build a large base of energy, but also develop the ability to crank out abundant energy in a short time. Finally, it absolutely takes energy to train well and build a better body; so never try to train hard when your energy is low.

Of course, the science of energy has many dimensions – diet, sleep, distance, frequency, speed – all of which need fine-tuning.

In the 1970s, I would occasionally drive to San Francisco on Saturday for a run, then walk around with my camera taking pictures and thinking deep thoughts. One day, I chanced across a park where a tag football game was in progress. But it was no little kids’ game – it was the San Francisco city league flag football championship, and it was a heck of a contest. A knowledgeable spectator told me that many of the players had NFL-quality skills, but were too small to play professionally. They were incredibly good – blazingly fast and agile. What I remember about that game is my impression of the huge energy that the players were putting out.

Years later, in the late 1980s, I was living in the remote foothills of the Sierra Nevada, in the Gold Rush country near Nevada City, California. We had terrible TV reception, and I rigged an amplified RV antenna so that we could watch the 49ers and Joe Montana. On Sunday afternoon, my then-wife and I would ritually don our 49er hats, make a bowl of popcorn, and settle down for three hours of stunningly good football.

I enjoyed those games very much – it was irresistible to watch the game being played with such amazing intelligence and energy. Yet I couldn’t help but feel that professional football was a deeply flawed game, played brilliantly.

I hadn’t forgotten that San Francisco city flag football championship game, which had a faster, more upbeat, True Sport flavor than the Neanderthal, bog-snorkeling bash-me-injure-me style of the pro game. Even the airy-fairy 49er West Coast offense couldn’t escape the essentially brutal nature of the game. Quarterbacks, more than ever, were targeted and sometimes deliberately injured. And many short passing routes ended in a violent collision with a linebacker or safety.

Last night, I watched some amazing videos of high school teams that have embraced the Age of Energy in football. Here’s how the official website explains the “A-11 offense” (follow the link to watch the videos):

The A-11 features up to all eleven players wearing an eligible receiver jersey number, either 1-49 or 80-99, with two quarterbacks in the shotgun formation at 7 yards, and with nobody under center – thereby meeting the criteria for a scrimmage kick formation. In “base” sets, the A-11 Offense has a center, and a tight end on each side, and three wide receivers to the right, and left respectively. By spreading the potentially eligible receivers across the entire field, it forces the defense to account for every possible receiver on each play.  Of course, on any given play, only six of those players can go downfield to catch a pass, and the five “covered” players remain ineligible to catch a downfield pass on that particular play.

How cool is that? Of course, I imagine that A-11’s detractors will raise the old cry – that it isn’t pure old-time, smash-mouth football, that it’s Ultimate Frisbee, that it doesn’t train players for how they’ll play in college, etc., etc. But its advocates are deadly serious, and they’re very clear about A-11’s advantages:

HELPS SMALL SCHOOLS COMPETE:

“Respectfully, throughout football history at the high school level, other teams have run a few plays from a scrimmage kick formation. But this is a brand new system in football, and for the thousands of small schools like us nationwide that are forced to compete against much larger schools on a regular basis, it’s the only way we can be competitive. The larger enrollment schools have a very unfair size advantage over the smaller schools, and so we had to try something new,” explains Piedmont head coach Kurt Bryan. And so the A-11 Offense was born to try and somewhat negate the sheer overwhelming size advantage much larger schools maintain over the small ones.

AN ADDED BENEFIT OF SAFETY:

The Piedmont coaching staff is also excited about the added safety aspect of the new offense, says A-11 co-creator Steve Humphries. “An unforeseen benefit for us has been a major increase in the safety and protection of our players. We have not had major injuries to our offensive players in a game or practice due to the spread-out nature of the A-11, and this is a major selling point. It really helps the players of the much smaller schools stay healthier during the season, which in turn allows schools like us to remain competitive throughout the entire year.”

THE A-11 IS FUN FOR THE PLAYERS:

“As soon as I implemented the A-11 system into our spread offense, our players’ attention skyrocketed. Now when I talk about the passing game, running game, play action game, everyone listens because they know they may be “THE GUY” at any time during the game that scores the touchdown. Our new team motto is All For One and One For All. Everyone Eligible! We can’t wait for the season to begin.” – George Crace, Head Football Coach, Horizon Christian H.S., Tualatin, Oregon

Who could argue? To my mind, this is really cool football – not least because it shares some of the best features of flag football, perhaps even soccer. Once again, it’s football evolving into the Energy Age. It shifts the paradigm from brute mechanical force toward energy and intelligence. Perhaps my enthusiasm is based on my memories of the football practices I endured in high school 52 years ago – it inspires me to think of 14-year-old, 145-pound guards being able to play football, instead of merely surviving three months of indentured servitude as blocking dummies for the varsity line.

What will happen to running, as our sport becomes more energy-aware? I believe we’re several steps ahead of football, which is, after all, a sport whose soul lives in the the villages of Brueghel. Remember the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where King Arthur walks through a medieval village whose essence is mud, mud, and more mud? One villager turns to another, “Oh look, he must be a king.” The other asks, “How can you tell?” “Because he isn’t all covered in s__t.”

There are intriguing parallels between the changes in sports training and religion in the materialistic and energy ages. In the old age, religion was about rigid rules and institutional authority. In sports, athletes trained according to strict systems and were expected to vow unconditional obedience to an authoritarian coach.

In religion in the age of energy, it will be recognized that spiritual institutions exist to serve the needs of individuals, and that each seeker has unique needs, based on his current awareness. The “system” will be to do whatever works. Training, too, will focus on the needs of the individual. More and more, the “coach” will be our own bodies, and the “textbook” will be our hearts.

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One Response to Training in the Age of Energy

  1. Jim Estill September 5, 2008 at 10:46 am #

    I absolutely beleive that energy is key.

    I am a big efficiency and time management person but have changed much of my view over time. It is not how you manage your time that counts, it is how you manage your energy.

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