Galen Rupp and Alberto Salazar: An Insane Way to Train?

Cal Newport is an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown. Cal is better known as founder of the Study Hacks website, where he ruminates on ways of “working less to work better.”

Yesterday, Cal posted a short article, “Where’s Your F Chord? What Guitar Teaches Us About the Quest for Mastery.”  It’s a fascinating read.

There’s a great deal of fodder for athletes in Cal’s research

Cal Newport of "Study Hacks"
Cal Newport of Study Hacks. (Click to enlarge.)

on efficiency and success. It turns out that what works for college professors and students works equally well on the roads and trails. Deep success principles translate nicely.

Cal ruminates on how difficult it is for beginning guitarists to play an F chord, “which not only keeps your fingers devilishly close together on the fretboard, but also requires you to contort your index finger to somehow flatten two strings at once.”

Each of these attempts (literally) strains you. This is not Guitar Hero: it’s uncomfortable and not at all fun.

But if you stick with it, your muscle memory improves, and you get faster and cleaner.

Cal is big on a principle he calls deliberate practice. It’s the idea that we improve by stretching – often uncomfortably – beyond our edges.

This isn’t exactly news for runners. We know that we grow by pushing past our current limitations. And why, exactly, is Cal Newport so enthusiastic about this principle? As a professor, he schedules regular hours to attack hard problems by deliberate hard thinking.

Is this guy a masochist? Very doubtful. No way he’d have 20,576 RSS followers. People are drawn to joy; they’re turned off by darkness. Toward the end of his life, the French nihilist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre was very alone, abandoned by his friends who’d grown exasperated with his constant gloominess.

Clearly, the reason Cal has so many followers is that stretching ourselves, though often uncomfortable, is deeply rewarding – it gives us joy invariably, always, every time we do it.

Cal suggests that we regularly ask ourselves “Where’s my F chord?” In other words, what are the areas where I know for sure I could improve, and in the process reap a more expanded awareness and a more intense happiness?

Last weekend, this issue emerged in the running world, this notion emerged as a fairly big deal, thanks to the behavior of an elite runner after a high-profile indoor track meet.

I reckon you’ve guessed it was Galen Rupp. He’s the guy who, at the direction of his coach, Alberto Salazar, did five 1-mile repeats of 4:21, 4:20, 4:20, 4:16, and 4:01 one hour after he broke the American indoor 2-mile record in 8:07.41. Oh – and then he tacked on 3×150 at 3:45 mile pace.

There’s a nifty video of Rupp, Mary Cain, Treniere Moser, and Cam Levins doing post-race repeats immediately after a January 16 meet at Boston University where Cain, Levins, and Rupp broke national records. Wonderful stuff.

Alberto Salazar
Alberto Salazar — a coach who’s focused on the process, on making training both successful and personally rewarding for his runners. (Click to enlarge. Photo credit: CalHopkins, Wikimedia Commons.)

Steve Magness, a former assistant of Salazar’s, now head track and field coach at the University of Houston, explained the science behind Rupp’s insane post-race workouts, in a recent Running Times article.

As a runner, I’m an old tortoise, but I’ve noticed that a hard effort puts me in an excellent state for doing even more hard work. It fills me with the kind of hormonal adaptation energy that Salazar claims these Rupp-like efforts increase in our bodies.

I’m intrigued by how my hard efforts not only stimulate my body, but how they also lift my spirits. As any runner knows, high energy and high effort are a sure-fire happiness pill.

Naturally, we don’t get the pill if the effort is too brutal, ill-timed, or if we’re sick or injured. That’s an invitation to disaster.

There’s “smart hard” and “stupid hard.” It seems that if we want to go hard-hard we have two options: (1) we can hire a coach like Salazar, who’ll prevent us from wrecking our bodies by doing too much; or (2) we can develop the discipline and wisdom to set our egos aside and do what’s right.

Neither approach is easy. Extra-hard efforts do demand extra caution – and that’s not a quality we runners are known for.

I think another point to bear in mind is that back-to-back workouts require that we take a long view. As with so many things in life, they demand that we look past immediate, easy, short-term satisfactions and see the larger joys that lie beyond. And they require that we plan for great joy with great caution, and great attention to detail.

A landmark study found that children who were able to forego an immediate reward, in order to get a more attractive reward later, were uniformly more successful when they grew up.

Cam Levins
Cam Levins’s career has been inspiring; he had tremendous success as a collegian, thanks to wise mentoring by Eric Houle, his coach at Southern Utah. Like Salazar, Houle focused on Levins’s long-term success and personal development. (Click to enlarge. Photo credit: Cwilliams90, Wikimedia Commons.)

I’m absolutely certain that they were also happier. Brain science tells us that the prefrontal cortex, just behind the forehead, is the area where the ability to attain long-term goals is localized. It also happens to be the area where positive, upbeat attitudes are found.

If you’ve been around successful people, and if you’ve wondered why they are so often upbeat and happy, there you go. This same brain area, incidentally, is where will power is localized.

Cal Newport concludes:

This type of deliberate effort is a pain. It’s why most people give up learning to play the guitar….

But here’s the thing … if you’re not willing to strain your fingers, you’ll never end up the professional equivalent of the cool guy, surrounded by girls, strumming soulfully to House of the Rising Sun.

The lesson for athletes is (painfully) clear. Do stuff that’s hard, on occasion. Then turn around and do it again. Crank up those hormones that help your body make rapid progress. You won’t just get stronger. You’ll be a happy, soulful dude.

(Follow-up: There’s good news for fans of Michael Connelly, the mystery writer whose work I mentioned in a recent post, Running Under the Influence of Love.” Amazon is offering free streaming of the pilot episode of the new “Bosch” TV series. Here’s the link. Harry Bosch is the LAPD detective featured in many of Connelly’s best-selling books. I watched the show and found it very good, faithful to the spirit and style of the books. Perhaps not surprising, since Connelly co-authored the script.)

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