Friday, December 17, 2010

No sweat (analysis)

The new new thing in training is sweat analysis. You read that right, and before you start laughing so hard that you fall off your chair, remember that this is offered by Lance Armstrong's coach and confidant and was developed in conjunction with Stanford University, home of Dr. Condoleezza Rice. If that does not give it street cred and WMD legitimacy I don't know what will. So off you go, start sweating for science and the goal of self-improvement beyond your wildest dreams.
getting ready for sweat analysis

One of the key lessons people learn in medical school is how limited our understanding of human physiology is, especially when it comes to practical applications. Another lesson they learn is that when we try to intervene, even when it seems smart and logical to do so, it either won't make a difference or it will make matters worse**

(**rarely and only very rarely do we find something that truly helps. And in all those cases, we found it by accident or serendipity and fitted the physiological reasoning post hoc.)

The medical school scenario works as follows: first, you spend a whole year learning about human physiology, a favorite subject among medical students. Physiology, unlike the dreaded human anatomy is not a test of learning by rote, but rather a sensible, meaningful insight into the workings of the human body. It is a confidence booster that has many students look forward to the clinic. As soon as they enter that clinic however, they start noticing that everything they learned in physiology is either wrong or needs heavy editing.
gross anatomy

Although as a young intern they will try hard to hang onto that shred of science, and although their favorite teachers will do what they can to support them there by asking post hoc questions to purportedly explain what was happening to patients, they'd have to be oblivious to reality -or true believers- not to notice that the practical value of what they learned in science class is extremely limited if not absent altogether.

A friend of mine put it this way: "First you spend a year to learn physiology and then you spend another one unlearning it all."
It is orders of magnitude easier to harm than to help

Apart from saying that medicine is largely heuristic and empirical, this also teaches us one other valuable lesson: that the human body is a very complex machine. A machine that has devised many ways around its own limitations and the limitations imposed by the data it can gather from the environment.

A very large part of our physiology evolved because it significantly reduced our susceptibility to the vagaries of the moment. For most parameters we adapt over very large ranges -usually orders of magnitude- with virtually no loss in performance. With sufficient training nearly all differences in initial conditions tend to zero.

We see true colors regardless of the spectral composition of the light. We can adjust to food choices from nearly 100% vegan to nearly 100% carnivorous. We can run barefoot or with crazy shoes. We can deliver the same power regardless of crank length. We can pedal squares on round chainrings. We can fit on bikes within a large size range and even get used to different fits at the same time.

It appears there is but one rule here and that is to practice, practice, practice,  and to make all changes incremental over time.

Happy training.

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