Training in an Age of Energy – Further Thoughts

When I wrote Fitness Intuition, I considered several alternate titles: Runner’s Intuition, Heart of a Runner, Happy Heart Training, etc. But I concluded that Fitness Intuition was the right choice.

I chose a title that didn’t have “Running” in it because I didn’t want to limit the insights I’d gathered regarding heart and soul in sports training to runners alone. I’m convinced that they’re true for everyone. They’re universal.

The patterns of training are the same in all sports. Our bodies are more similar than different, whether we’re talented or not, male or female, runners or cyclists.

Whether we lift weights, swim, play basketball, tennis, football, or soccer, training is always about nudging the body to do a little more, then letting it rest and get stronger. Only the details differ.

This was made clear to me when I picked up a book by Clarence Bass several years ago. I’ve mentioned Clarence before. Now in his 70s, he’s a former world-class bodybuilder. His sport is sooooo different from mine – what could he possibly say that would help my running?

Lots, as I discovered.

When Clarence wrote Challenge Yourself, he was over 60 and had been lifting weights for 50 years. In that time he’d refined his awareness of what counted in training, and what he could safely discard. When I adapted his ideas, I found that they applied beautifully.

In Lost World of the Kalahari, Laurens van der Post describes a South African man who inherited a farm but knew nothing about farming. He plunged into an intensive study of farming, reading books, talking with other farmers, writing to agricultural experts, and in the end he became successful. Along the way, he found that having studied one subject intensely enabled him to understand other fields rapidly as well.

When we become good at one thing, we develop core abilities that enable us to be good at others. Vaslav Nijinsky, the Russian ballet dancer (1889-1950), was vacationing at a Swiss ski resort and watched a professional skier demonstrate some fancy moves. Nijinsky borrowed a pair of skis and repeated the moves effortlessly, though he’d never skied.

What patterns of training did Clarence Bass identify that can help a runner? Here’s an obvious one: recovery is crucial. No revelation there! But Bass refined his understanding of recovery. At age 60+, he found that training very easy on his off-days, and taking many easy days, allowed him to train very hard on his main workout days, and make faster progress than at any other time in his career. Many bodybuilders now use the “train less, train harder” approach.

When I adapted similar principles in my running, I got positive results. Instead of focusing on mileage, I put most of my energy into a single weekly long run. During most of those runs, which were 2 to 3 hours, I did some speedwork – usually a 25-minute effort at above 90% of maximum heart rate, or some all-out 2-minute repeats. During the week, I ran easy and did some easy walking with Mary Ellen.

Mind you, I’ll be 67 in a week, so the details of my training are not extensible to younger and/or more talented runners. My body needs much more rest than it did 30 years ago. But the principles of energy-management are the same. It’s a question of scale. The world-leading Africans run very easy on their recovery runs. The difference is that their “easy” runs are much faster than my “hard” runs. And their hard efforts come 6 hours after an easy jog, instead of up to 4 days later.

The patterns of energy-management are the same, but the energy flow is much greater.

Clarence Bass also found that the body loves variety. Again, no surprise. Changing our training helps keep us motivated. Variety seems to “wake up” the body and make it improve.

(Parenthetically, Running Times editor Scott Douglas wrote an excellent article about the energy-management practices of world-class runners: Training on the Shoulders of Giants: Training lessons from 15 years of close contact with the elites.)

Which is my long-winded way of warming up to write, once again, about Bill Walsh, and how he applied creative energy-management principles to resurrect the San Francisco 49ers.

Walsh took the Niners to three Super Bowl wins, after inheriting a 2-14 team that, in the words of 49er offensive lineman Randy Cross, was “the worst 2-14 team in the history of the NFL.” Yet Walsh’s first Super Bowl victory came just three years after he was hired. Walsh transformed the team by applying energy-management ideas that are applicable in running, business, relationships – anything we do.

I recently re-read Walsh’s book, Building a Champion: On Football and the Making of the 49ers, co-authored with journalist Glenn Dickey and published in 1988. What inspired me to pick up the book was a run in San Francisco. As usual, I started at Crissy Field and ambled across the Golden Gate Bridge, then onto the trails of the Marin Headlands. It’s a lovely route that refreshes me after a week at the computer.

On the return, I came off the bridge pushing the pace hard, and I was flying along a sidewalk near the Bay when I heard a familiar voice. I glanced ahead and saw a former 49er player from the team’s glory years. I won’t mention his name, except to say that he’s a Hall of Fame safety, the best to play the game, that his initials are R. L., and that he wore number 42.

Seeing Ronnie…uh, the player…reminded me of Sunday afternoons in the eighties when my ex-wife and I would make a bowl of popcorn, don 49er hats, and settle in to watch Montana, Rice, and R. L. dismantle teams that practiced a more traditional, grind-em-out style of football.

What made those games enthralling was that they were all about energy. And Bill Walsh was the Energy Master.

Walsh rebuilt the 49er organization from the ground up, and the new structure was based entirely on using energy efficiently. Whether he was promoting attitudes of public service among the people who answered the phones and sold tickets, or designing pass plays for Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, he was obsessed with enabling a powerful, uninterrupted flow of energy, toward the end of winning the Super Bowl.

Walsh was quick to rid the 49ers of people and systems that created blocks to that positive energy flow. On the playing field, his system, which New York Giants coach Bill Parcells derisively dubbed the “West Coast Offense,” consisted of an energy-efficient style of play that Walsh inherited, in part, from Cincinnati Bengals coach Paul Brown and San Diego Chargers coach Sid Gilman.

Brown, Gilman, and Walsh realized that the most efficient way to move the ball, with the least effort and highest odds of success, was the short pass. When applied against teams that relied on brute physical power, Walsh’s energy-efficient plays were devastating. His system spread throughout the NFL, as other teams lured Niner assistant coaches with offers of head coaching jobs.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Walsh reinvented sports, and that it was important that he do so.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere how my spiritual teacher claimed that the world has entered an age of energy-awareness. In the last 150 years, the new energy-consciousness has flooded our lives with gadgets fueled by coal, gas, and electricity. On a human level, more flowing and flexible, energy-based patterns are emerging in all areas of our lives, including business, religion, sports, and relationships.

By demonstrating that intelligent use of energy is the key to success even in a Neanderthal sport such as pro football, Bill Walsh served as a standard bearer for the energy age.

A simple example. When Walsh arrived in San Francisco, he had to fire many substandard players who had no hope of succeeding in the NFL. Many of the remaining players were well below NFL standards, yet Walsh treated them well. He poured boundless energy into helping them refine their skills, such as they were. It was an expression of his belief that creating a powerful flow of energy in a positive direction is what counts.

In fact, it was a striking expression of a principle that J. Donald Walters calls “directional relativity.” In his wonderful book, Out of the Labyrinth: For Those Who Want to Believe, But Can’t, Walters argues that values are relative, but directional. Thus, actions that would be positive and expansive for one person (a lazy slob takes a job at a car wash) would be disastrously contractive for a person whose awareness is more expansive (Mother Teresa changes careers to wash cars).

The actions that have the highest value for humanity are those that expand happiness, and decrease suffering. An immutable law of nature says that expansive actions unfailingly deliver a corresponding inflow of joy.

A simple example from running. When Kenny Moore ran at Oregon, coach Bill Bowerman assigned him a “hard/easy” schedule of workouts, recognizing that Moore needed more rest than Steve Prefontaine. Both runners were intent on improving – moving forward in an expansive direction – but Moore needed easier training than Pre.

If values were fixed and inflexible, Moore and Pre would have thrived on the same training. If values were fixed in stone, all runners could read the same authoritative book and follow its training schedules to the letter. But it’s obvious that the individual needs to adapt his or her training in ways that will expand his/her own fitness, not someone else’s.

Walsh understood that creating a powerful, positive flow of energy requires working sensitively with the individual. He knew that helping each 49er player improve, even the worst, was the key to building a successful organization.

In Walsh’s words:

We set about teaching fundamentals and skills, establishing a system of football on offense and defense, and establishing a positive atmosphere and attitude.

We were enthusiastically involved in developing the players we had, trying to improve their consistency and effectiveness. I think our staff did an admirable job the first two years, working in most cases with men who could not compete in the NFL, developing them to their fullest potential. (Building a Champion, p. 93)

Sports is changing. Walsh was the first pro coach to devote such intense energy to developing the individual player as the key to the team’s success. When superstars Joe Montana and Steve Young joined the Niners, Walsh didn’t immediately insert them in games in hopes of suddenly improving the team’s woeful record. Instead, he spent months helping them refine fundamental aspects of quarterbacking, such as their footwork, and only used them for plays where they stood a chance of succeeding and gaining confidence. Energy was the key: by helping the individual optimize his energy, he developed players who were faster, smarter, more skilled and energy-efficient. The “system” proved itself with five Super Bowl victories, three during Walsh’s tenure.

What can a runner learn from Clarence Bass and Bill Walsh about managing our energy? I suspect it’s the idea of studying our own “energy economy” and adopting the methods that will work best for us, at our own level.

No two runners are exactly alike. How quickly do we recover? Reviewing our training diary, we can identify the elapsed time between our best long/hard runs.

Which runs leave us feeling energized – “pleasantly tired,” as Arthur Lydiard put it – rather than overextended and sandbagged? Where are our personal “edges” that we can nudge to become faster, stronger, more enduring and energized? How far can we press those edges without falling into overtraining and contraction?

What heart rates work best during daily runs? Long runs? Speedwork? Races?

The way we feel while running can help us find the answers. When we cooperate with nature, it rewards us with positive feelings. The best runs feel “expansive.” It’s hard for most runners to always stay inside nature’s fences – not stray beyond their present abilities, or pretend we’re better than we are. Progress begins with truth – admitting where we stand.

Once we know what our bodies are capable of, we can choose expansive training methods.

We can choose a diet that gives us energy. We all need carbs and protein, but the specifics are individual. Mary Ellen and I eat radically different foods. About the only food we can eat together is pizza. But we both get the same “food groups.”

We can cultivate positive feelings, which dramatically increase the power output of the heart. We can get enough sleep, and so on. And like Bill Walsh, we can eliminate “energy killers” – negative people, junk food, overtraining, etc. We can sing, whistle, smile, and help others. We can train in places that make us feel good.

The energy we get from positive people, music, books, movies, art, and scenery is an “ergonomic aid,” because they lift our mood and boost our immune system, which is vitally involved in recovery.

We can plan our training for months and years, but adjust it daily. The body’s needs change continually, and calm, objective feeling lets us know when we’re doing the right training from moment to moment. There’s an upbeat feeling when we’re on the right track. Good energy feels good.

Postscript: I was absolutely delighted to receive a kind remark on this article from Clarence Bass. (See Comments link below.) I don’t know how Clarence found the article, but I’m touched and impressed as always by his expansive spirit. At 70-plus, he may no longer lift the same weights as when he was 40 – though he still works out intensely. But he continues to lift other people. Just for fun, here’s a gallery of photos of Clarence spanning his career.

1 thought on “Training in an Age of Energy – Further Thoughts”

  1. George:

    Thanks for your kind comments on my work in your “Running in the Age of Energy.” I fully agree that the basis rules of fitness apply broadly.

    Your writing is smooth and wonderful.

    Continued success.


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