elitefts™ Sunday Edition

When I mention who I know to be the fastest runners, I don’t prattle off any of the typical names that people expect. Bringing up the subject of African pygmies as an answer to the question really throws people into a conversational tailspin. However, as one more component in biomechanic skill, it’s pygmies who stand as pinnacle in ability toward reframing the proverbial argument of whether or not size matters.

Since early humans aren't considered by the majority of the athletic community when discussing running skills, such oversight offers an incredible opportunity to study the true best at running speed. Yet, if our early ancestors have proven to be more efficient and better runners, isn’t the logical question, "why?" followed hopefully by the question, "how can their talents be learned?"

Running is frequently dismissed by those who look down on it with sarcastic tune and state that the only time running wouldn’t be considered futile is if they were being chased. However, that well-worn joke struck a different response with me. While we picture early man being at risk of a grizzly death by larger animals, that hasn’t always been the complete picture of human experience. To survive, pygmies chased their food with bow and arrow weapons. Not only did they have to run with very quick intense bursts of speed, but they also had to maintain accuracy with their shot to kill for the hunt. That means they ran at peak speed while maintaining phenomenal control of their arms.

Once removed from their biomechanic equation, the technique that they had to develop to run, while also being successful with hunting tools, allowed them to run on a treadmill and let them demonstrate to us what a fast runner truly looks like. Little research exists to explain why they achieve such high levels of efficiency in VO2 processing, which is clearly superior to ours. There's a world of competitive advantage available to athletes if they're willing to look up to another human being in skill—or, in this case, look down.

Being chased by any predator is a competition in which one must outlast the endurance limits of the predator, and exhaust it to the point of giving up the chase. In contrast, humans hunting prey used quick bursts of speed until their weapons were fired at a range close enough to finish the job. The difference in survival goals dictated that they each learn a completely refined running technique, allowing them to improve their survival skills and social ranking among the other animals around them.

Of course, the most interesting aspect of this component is how long we've known about pygmy speed skills, yet they're never mentioned in any training literature I've ever found. My reference journal article is from 1991, which means that over twenty years have passed since their documentation. Sadly, like the story of Kenyan women, their abilities have been ignored because they can't be explained. For me, the study highlights the comical farce that perpetuates athletic training—the joke we call VO2 max measurement.

As the child of a cardiopulmonary physician, I became well-versed in aerobic function well beyond what could be expected of me in school. In having such a medical resource at my dinner table, I was immersed in the science of respiratory function long before I learned to drive. Because we think in terms of brute and brawn for training athletes, conventional wisdom and the accepted coaching mantra dictate that more is always better. On the subject of oxygen consumption, we’ve followed suit in such beliefs without even questioning the logic.

I love the emphasis that our training culture puts on looking to oxygen consumption as something we’re supposed to “maximize,” just as we maximize what we can lift. Reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Stepping back from the training hype, it makes absolutely no sense to invest time or money in improving how much oxygen we can shove through the body during athletic output. Oxygen transfers to our blood system through the lung’s alveolar sacs, and that surface area can't be increased through any known training routine. In fact, that surface area only decreases in size from environmental impact. With a fixed amount of surface area available for oxygen transfer, we can’t really improve how much oxygen we take in or increase in blood levels because we can't change the size or capacity of our lungs to do so. With set limits of function, why is that biology missing from training reality?

The question is, why is our running form so inefficient that we look to maximize the amount of oxygen our bodies can process? Why not look for technique improvements instead? I ask my clients which of the following sounds more logical: trying to increase the amount of oxygen your body can take in or trying to naturally decrease how much oxygen your body needs?

Few athletes and trainers take into consideration the abundance of oxygen available to us. In extremely high altitude cultures, such as Tibet, oxygen is an incredibly scarce commodity that can't be wasted. I liken the VO2 max training model to sitting down at an 'all you can eat' buffet restaurant and trying to shovel as much oxygen as possible down our throats with absolutely no regard as to what’s wasted in the process. High altitude cultures can't afford such a glutinous perspective. For them, every bite of oxygen molecule they take in is savored as if they were dining at a five-star gourmet establishment. Not one breath inhaled is taken for granted, and we don't seem to have any interest in studying their abilities, which are far superior to ours.

Speed is a balance game. It contrasts the differences between increasing how more fuel can be burned within our biological systems to generate power by improving the design through refining and improving how power is created from what’s available to use. While I realize the latter path is a much more difficult one, it simply means that you don’t have to worry about being limited in performance by how much oxygen you take in. While experts try to cram air down our gullets, other options exist in the pursuit of running speed. The pygmies of Africa easily show how and why to follow them. In learning how to shoot on the run, that need for aiming accuracy taught them how to minimize energy loss and unnecessary movement to improve their killing success. You don’t think those skills apply to running with a football? Why so few trainers or athletes truly focus on that is simply one of many questions I ask about the industry.

I enjoy introducing my students to a similar thinking individual in the automotive industry, known for building very fast cars. His name is Reeves Callaway (his father is the Callaway in Callaway Golf). Although not a popular name for many, I fully savor his approach to improving the performance of his “athletes,” as it best reflects my approach with human clients. I can only hope that somewhere Callaway found the same Chinese proverb I did, which stated, “The future belongs to the efficient.” His automotive designs seem to take that simple philosophy to heart and can be seen in the incredibly agile and fast motor vehicles he creates. For me, it underscores a belief toward the highest reward in return for anyone’s time invested in athletic training.

Reeve’s approach, and what sets him apart from many of his competitors, is to maximize power in his engines from head to toe before even attempting to force more air through the system. To explain why the pygmies of Africa are more efficient in VO2 measurements is best illustrated by an engine series that Reeves built called the SuperNatural program. The cars are in my reference links below, but his design philosophy makes for a wonderful metaphor in how an athlete can maximize his performance levels even before he begins any weight training program.

Reeves' approach is similar to athletic training because he didn’t want to simply shove air through his engines with a turbocharger or supercharger system, as so many of his industry peers do. Instead, his motors were results of a design direction through simply refining how efficiently the air it does takes in is guided through the motor as quickly as possible. Reeves and his engineers found ways to reduce the internal friction of the air as it's channeled from the atmosphere by studying the path of the engine's oxygen intake. Every aspect of where and how the air flowed through the plumbing was designed and improved to eliminate what restricted its movement and impeded the engine's horsepower output. Why would any competitor think differently about improving speed?

Like Callaway's SuperNatural motor vehicle, you can create greater power output and speed by refining how oxygen moves through your athletic system and removing what unnaturally increases bodily friction in movement ability. Your choices in philosophy are to use traditional methods of training work to force more oxygen through your body or find a way to use the least amount of oxygen necessary to run at any speed you choose.

So, if you asked me who I would choose to describe a SuperNatural running style of minimum energy waste, I would say the African pygmies. In the search for improved running speed, pygmies have learned, over the thousands of years they’ve survived, that the aerobic question isn’t how much oxygen your body can process, as VO2 measures are described, but how much can you reduce the amount of oxygen your body needs to attain any speed.

Human survival in speed running is hinged on the fact that no one knew how long the race in killing prey would last. Therefore, every step had to be made as efficiently as possible to meet the energy needs of the hunting chase, regardless as to how long that sprint was. So in contrast with yours, the pygmies' running technique focused purely on reducing all unnecessary energy expenditures to optimize speed, something the modern athlete has yet to consider.

I find it pretty funny actually that our training media considers maximum oxygen uptake the pinnacle definition of athletic ability while the exercise research community deems it to be running economy that defines technique skill. So, who’s right? Which approach seems more logical for you to follow?

In my world, the pygmies of Africa answer the question correctly in terms of what training goals should be pursued. Because this species of human being reaches higher speeds than we do as shoe-wearing athletes, it's clear which path generates the better physical skills for running.

With a much more broad picture of the human experience under my belt, it's clear to me that it's far better to focus one’s training time on learning and teaching what optimum efficiency is for locomotion mechanics, knowing that greater speed and performance will be the natural byproducts. That’s what the masking tape exercise is designed to introduce to you. What I hope you’ll learn is that how you “naturally” walk today can be accomplished with significantly less bodily movement. If that makes sense, the idea of faster running with greater physical control should be easy to extrapolate.