Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Energy Illusion

Understanding Nothing
Do you remember any school physics? It was my favourite and best subject at school despite poor and disinterested teaching. By university all interest had gone and it was a case of passing course work and exams - rote learning. The system had won. Like everyone else I learned the laws, formulas and their applications without ever questioning. One thing remained in my favour. I had a sense of understanding absolutely nothing - not even the simplest aspect of physics. I could ace the exams with a little bit of work - but understood nothing at all. (In fact nearly all of my study effort went into studying English and reading literature - where I knew I understood even less!) In the complete absence of guidance from an adult (I was just turned 17 years old) or mentor all this did was remove any confidence or curiosity that might have remained. Beer and girls rapidly became much more appealing alternatives. (They still are if I'm honest - but I don't drink now and discovered that girls can have some potentially disagreeable side effects!)

Somewhere along the way - long after escaping from the degree factory the penny dropped and I realised that it wasn't me who was stupid - it was the teachers - or at least the "system" (perhaps both). It wasn't me who didn't understand physics - nobody did - and nobody mentioned that. In fact the key to physics and all of science is to realise that you don't understand and to let that discomfort lead you to more questions.

Last summer I quickly read through the book "ChiRunning" by Danny Dryer and immediately reacted negatively to the mystical reverence given to the unmeasurable, unquantifiable and unprovable concept of Chi Energy. I felt indignation that the word "energy" which is our word for a measurable, quantifiable and apparently concrete entity could be abused in this sloppy and weak minded manner. With this in mind I set about re-reading the book much more carefully with a view to writing a detailed critique ripping it apart and to simultaneously try to abstract whatever useful information might be hidden in there. It was obvious from the start that it was essential to first of all clarify what Western "energy" actually is. When thinking about "energy" that old familiar feeling of "not understanding" resurfaced, which is a warning that something is amiss. I'd never tried to pin down the concept of energy before but simply disliked sloppy references to mystical "energies" that couldn't exist in a measurable way. In contrast I'd learned to respect the use of the word "energy" for things that clearly did exist in a measurable way. With all our different types of energy ranging through mechanical, chemical, electromagnetic and so on, it still felt to me that I was missing something using this umbrella word "energy".

One thing however I felt was sure: People who claim to feel or sense unmeasurable energies and who can vouch for their existence beyond all known science often use this to elevate their status and fortify their delusions. They do this by conferring upon themselves a level of superiority, authority and access to an imaginary supernatural, spiritual world - claimed always to be much better than our miserable and pathetic "real" one. None of this could be confronted without first of all resolving any potential confusion over Western "Energy". 

The "Energy" Illusion
Everyone assumes that "energy" is well understood and defined as a concept. Until the industrial revolution and the advent of thermodynamics with steam engines there was no word "energy" in the English language. The concept didn't exist. We translate Chi as "energy" without giving the slightest thought to this and without putting our minds in the context of the world as viewed through the eyes of someone living several thousand years ago - with no modern science to explain gravity, electricity, heat, light, magnetism, etc. It seems that prior to the industrial revolution the West had a parallel concept to Chi which was the "living force" or "vis viva" which also embraced practically everything whether measurable or not. During the industrial revolution this concept managed to linger on as "élan vitale" - applied only to biological organisms as the special essence that animated life. Eventually that seems to have been abandoned even though nobody can actually define what separates living from inanimate matter.

(Wikipedia excerpt No 1)
The word energy derives from the Greek ἐνέργεια energeia, which possibly appears for the first time in the work of Aristotle in the 4th century BCE

The concept of energy emerged out of the idea of vis viva (living force), which Gottfried Leibniz defined as the product of the mass of an object and its velocity squared; he believed that total vis viva was conserved. To account for slowing due to friction, Leibniz theorized that thermal energy consisted of the random motion of the constituent parts of matter, a view shared by Isaac Newton, although it would be more than a century until this was generally accepted. In 1807,Thomas Young was possibly the first to use the term "energy" instead of vis viva, in its modern sense.[5] Gustave-Gaspard Coriolis described "kinetic energy" in 1829 in its modern sense, and in 1853, William Rankine coined the term "potential energy". It was argued for some years whether energy was a substance (the caloric) or merely a physical quantity, such as momentum

The concept of "life force" never completely died away thanks partly to Erwin Schrodinger, one of the greatest modern scientists and one of the fathers of quantum mechanics. In his ground breaking book "What is Life" published in 1944 he postulated that life was a "molecule" - leading to the search for and discovery of DNA. He also suggested in the same book that there was a "life force" and called it "negative entropy". Entropy means "disorder" - so the life force he was referring to was something that created spontaneous order. Note that this is the first time we see a clear connection between "energy " and "order" as in "organisation". Yet entropy - or disorder is considered as always increasing in the universe on the whole and was clearly linked to heat production.

What bothered me particularly in trying to understand "energy" was that there is a long list of different types and they all appear to be interchangeable - but profoundly different. Potential into Kinetic into Electrical into Chemical into Electromagnetic into Heat. Nuclear energy being the only one to interchange with Mass. But if I asked myself to picture this "energy" as an entity I couldn't. Where is the "energy" thing that constitutes "potential energy"? In the absence of anything tangible it seemed that the ability to "measure" and "calculate" was all that this word could represent.

I'd already encountered the way that some engineers believe in "dynamic equilibrium" as being a reality. The self proclaimed "most famous engineer in the world" telling me that the universe is in balance - because his grasp of reality was obscured by mathematics. Dynamic equilibrium is a fiction where accelerations are replaced by imaginary forces to balance out a system only for the purpose of calculation. This is a mathematical tool which works. Energy looked more and more to be another "fiction" and just a mathematical tool and as a "concrete" thing, nothing more than an illusion.

(Wikipedia excerpt No 2)
During a 1961 lecture[6] for undergraduate students at the California Institute of TechnologyRichard Feynman, a celebrated physics teacher and Nobel Laureate, said this about the concept of energy: 

There is a fact, or if you wish, a law, governing all natural phenomena that are known to date. There is no known exception to this law—it is exact so far as we know. The law is called the conservation of energy. It states that there is a certain quantity, which we call energy, that does not change in manifold changes which nature undergoes. That is a most abstract idea, because it is a mathematical principle; it says that there is a numerical quantity which does not change when something happens. It is not a description of a mechanism, or anything concrete; it is just a strange fact that we can calculate some number and when we finish watching nature go through her tricks and calculate the number again, it is the same. The Feynman Lectures on Physics

The Stonier Model
The only "concrete" thing that we can relate to this "energy" is, as Shrodinger was suggesting,  "order" or "organisation". In the 1980s and 90s Professor Tom Stonier of Warwick university managed to formally integrate "information physics" with the standard concept of "energy" so as to bring about a more grounded explanation. Before we go there let's recap:
1. "Energy" is a new word referring only to an abstract mathematical principle and it can always be measured. We have no general word to describe anything concrete - though we can refer to diverse aspects directly such as heat, light, gravity, electricity, acceleration, chemical bonding, phase changing etc. In the distant past all of this would have been blanket covered by the concept of "living force".
2. The ancient Chinese concept of Chi is assumed by us to be "energy" but it can neither be identified as an entity nor measured. Chi is also viewed as a "life force".
3. Schrodinger related "life force" to "negative entropy" (order as a product of activity). Stonier  formally connected "energy" with "information" - which is much harder to quantify and measure (although possible).

Ironically, the Chinese "Chi" is turning out to be more concrete than our abstract "energy" because it has kept it's roots in "life force" and hence "order as a product of activity".

Stonier demonstrated that we need to consider Matter, Energy and Information as the three corners of a triangle. The lines joining the three corners have to be viewed as axes with all possible states being either on the axes or inside the triangle. The pure Matter/Energy axis (with no Information) is disorganised hot matter - Plasma. The pure Energy/Information axis (with no Matter) is massless electromagnetic radiation - Light. The pure Matter/Information axis (with no energy) is organised crystals at 0°Kelvin. Most states are somewhere inside the triangle and involve all three - Energy/Information/Matter. Not one of those three properties can exist independently - so the context is fundamentally important.

Removing the Mystical
None of the above justifies the "mystical" interpretations of "Chi" nor much of the philosophical Chinese medicine based upon it. What is does do is warn us to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bath water. Franz Mesmer was a perfect example of this actually happening. He was a doctor who discovered that he could manipulate some force or fluid travelling through the body. He wanted to align this with modern science so he referred to this "substance" as "animal magnetism". He could "magnetize" all sorts of objects and use them to re-balance the flow of this substance in dozens of people at one time. The "re-balancing" involved people experiencing wild convulsions. Mesmer had much more success as a doctor curing people of diverse problems with this than by any other means and it became wildly popular world wide. Eventually a scientific panel including Benjamin Franklin proved this "animal magnetism" to be totally nonexistent. Mesmer was made out to be a complete fraud and was ridiculed and destroyed despite his success with patients. True - there was no "energy", nothing physical or measurable "flowing" through the body - but people were cured. Even the scientific panel had not wanted to destroy Mesmer - the public and media did that. Mesmer had unwittingly in fact discovered hypnosis and this was eventually made evident through one of his students - the Marquis de Puységur. Sigmund Freud started off as a hypnotist and through this he understood the existence of the separate unconscious mind. Today there are still charlatans who sell their services as "magnetizers" in France and elsewhere. This gets stretched even further by unscrupulous opportunists who sell actual "magnetic" pads to cure aches and pains etc. Chemists sell this junk along with homeopathy because they can make money and the placebo effect can't really be ignored. Much Chinese medicine appears to function through the power of hypnotism - which is like an amplified placebo effect. Chi is often described in an identical manner to Mesmer's "animal magnetism" and this mystical and quasi religious aspect is clearly mistaken.

If we remove the mystical nonsense from "Chi" then the remainder seems to be pretty promising. It's a word that could perhaps be used to handle Stonier's quantifiable Matter/Energy/Information model.

Schrodinger-Stonier Chi 
The aim of ChiRunning is to replace inefficient ways of movement with efficient ones. That sounds relatively simple but it isn't. It requires great insight. Danny Dryer the author realised that the ancient Chinese had this insight and all he needed to do was to apply it specifically to running. The basic insight came from Tai chi. Dryer has exploited this brilliantly.

With Tom Stonier we can move away from the idea of energy just changing from one form to another and see that it also changes into information or organisation - and that information also changes between forms and reconverts to energy. It takes work to organise! Stonier identifies three basic forms of information - structural, kinetic and potential.

The body is an Energy Transducer - it uses information to convert energy from one form to another, to convert energy into information and to perform work more efficiently.

The brain is an Information Transducer - it uses energy to convert one form of information into another.

ChiRunning is about using the body, brain and forces of nature in harmony - so it is really about understanding and exploiting all of those "conversions" that are going on. "Schrodinger-Stonier Chi" is remarkable but not mystical or supernatural and it can be fully quantified albeit currently a difficult task.

This article has been intense enough without plunging into definitions from information physics so I'll jump directly to the practical implications.

The body and environment have structural information. Even the location of the body is part of this structure and organisation. All of this structure can and will be re-organised over time.

The body contains energy and the universe around it does too in the form of gravity, heat, light and in mechanical forms (wind and waves).

Conscious efficient and constructive use of those energies and their conversion into useful information is what "chi" is all about. Unconscious use of energy tends to be incredibly wasteful and even powerfully disorganising and destructive. We tend to be oblivious to this. We run by trying to make our legs stronger and wreck our joints in the process. We should run by relaxing and exploiting gravity for propulsion, using the large core muscles around the hips and spine. Chi is the organising regenerative force - the spontaneous "negative entropy" that takes place locally when we get it right. It's why you can run to the top of a mountain without tiredness when you don't fight against yourself. You use the free energy of the universe (gravity in this case) and work in harmony with it instead of against it. You selectively relax your muscles instead of fighting yourself. You align your body and mind with nature and its forces. This is a flow as opposed to a resistance and energy does flow through your body in the sense that information converts it with great ease and minimum waste. Your use of muscle power is amplified through good mechanics aligned with the forces of nature. Your mind focuses and re-focuses removing the resistance of chattering dialogues in your head and feedback information converts into more useful information; patterns, perspectives, decisions, intentions. Chi flows through your brain too. You identify and connect with your interior through your senses - engaging the strength of your core - aligning and resonating with the external world through the forces of nature. You become grounded and strong with a sense of identity, purpose, meaning and will power as your metaphysical world evolves. There is nothing mystical about it. It is concrete.

Energy Transducers create two conditions necessary for the production of useful work: (1) They create a non-equilibrium situation (Dynamics in skiing - falling over); and (2) they provide a mechanism of countervailing force necessary for the production of useful work.  (The ski - bringing you back up)

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


Good bike ride yesterday. Working on chi mechanics and trying out the oval chain wheel on a bigger climb. Matched last September's time for the climb despite this just being the very beginning of the cycling season. Normally I'm a useless lump of lard at this point. Interestingly I felt really good at the top of this relentless climb where I'm normally tired - the combination of the chi and oval modifications no doubt.

Cycling Posture
One relatively recent running development was the ability to separate the pelvic tilt from the normal lumbar lordosis. Using chi coordination in cycling it is quite easy to separate the two things even with the significant hip flexion of the seated position on the bike. When climbing you can sit relatively upright as air resistance is not generally a big issue (unless there is a strong headwind). Keeping the lower back straight - with the slight hollow (natural lordosis) appears to allow the core muscles to continue to function best and give access to rotation around the spine. The pelvis can be independently pulled up to "crunch" the lower abdomen and ensure that the lordosis doesn't degenerate into a weak "sway back" posture. It's really interesting separating the two and feeling the power from the core muscles when it is right. The hard part is bringing your attention back onto it when it drifts. There is more work needed to develop the mental strength than the physical strength and coordination.

Foot Muscles
I've already started having issues with my feet - the left one on the outside near the middle (5th metatarsal joint) and the right one on the inside between the ankle and the arch - clearly linked to the plantar fascia. Also the inside of the right knee - below the joint was showing signs of tendinitis.
None of these are aggravated by the 10 mile runs on tarmac with minimalist shoes - so it's clear that it's all coming from the cycling. Skiing all winter produced no pains either. It dawned on me that all of those problems might be coming from a tendency to relax the muscles in the feet. When running "barefoot" the foot muscles are brought into action by reflex through impact. In cycling the pressure is gradual and you are seated so there is a tendency to let the feet just go floppy and do their own thing. I tried to extend the foot actively through the pressure cycle - trying to load the tendons and retrieve the energy back through a high cadence just as in running. The feeling is that the muscles and tendons are working in the feet as opposed to them just flexing under pressure and wastefully soaking up energy that just dissipates. The result was that there was no aggravation of any of the current conditions. The knee problem vanished and both the foot problems seem to have improved.
Watching most beginner cyclists I see a lot of wasted energy at the feet and ankles with a great deal of flexing of both and generally a saddle height that is too low to accommodate this style. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012


I Just had to share this from the Telegraph - it is absolutely classic. I wish I could get some of my clients to relax even a fraction of this amount!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Good Coaching - Focus, Useful Information and Perception.

I started watching a Horizon program about the brain which explained how only a tiny part of our mental activity is conscious. The next thing I remembered was the credits at the end because I fell asleep during the program. It must have been a very good program because it seemed to be correct.

Two Ways to Learn
Experience has shown me that there are basically two ways to learn - either through unconscious absorption and adaptation or through conscious focus. The second way is always best when there is a choice. Without conscious focus we, as an entire species, could manage to throw stones quite well but with it we could send men to the moon. Ski instruction notably is mostly still in the Stoneage. Race training in particular is completely controlled by Neanderthals and is to be avoided by any other species. Yes there are Neanderthals still surviving today and they are all hiding up on the glaciers where they have retreated to since the end of the last ice age.

Conscious Cornering
I find that my body has an excellent memory - but when it comes to facts and photos it's much better to use Google and a hard drive. When the body learns a skill properly it doesn't completely forget when inactive for a long time. It definitely gets a bit rusty but returns relatively quickly close to the level that had been mastered. I think that's the case for most people. Once you learn to ride a bicycle you have that skill for life - though you can always improve upon it. Same with playing a musical instrument. Last year I managed to improve my cornering skills on the road bicycle in a very unexpected way - through the use of a clever device called a Leanometer. It wasn't so much using the device that changed my cornering, but it was in understanding what the device was doing that made the difference. The Leanometer separates "System Lean" from "Frame Lean" - in other words it tells you the angle of your centre of mass to the ground and also the angle of your bike to the ground (This is only one option available). What surprised me was that due to poor tyre grip on a bike it's safer to have the centre of mass at a sharper angle to the ground than the bike itself. Ever since going over the handlebars a few times off-road on my mountain bike by moving my whole body into the turn just like when using dynamics on skis - I'd backed off from any type of action resembling this. However I hadn't been specifically separating the two things. I'd been inclining everything as one unit. Now on the racing bike with skinny tyres I feel a strange sensation of security at speed when cornering by leaning my upper body well into the turn and keeping the bike relatively upright.

The point here is that it was intelligent reflection that permitted progress plus there was no need to risk injury to find out. This allowed me to consciously separate the System angle from the Frame angle in a way that I would probably never have discovered for myself on a bicycle. Out of interest, my previous solution on the bicycle was to place all the weight on the outside pedal - taking it off the saddle and to tilt the bike before moving the body inwards. This also separates the System and Frame angle but in the opposite direction, putting the vertical component of force on the outside of the bike instead of the inside which compensates for any skidding to keep the bike upright - or at least this is what I imagine and appears to happen but I don't know the proper mechanics to prove it. Incidentally, skis generally (if done properly) grip better this way due to increased edge angle and pressure - so they are in some specific ways the opposite from bikes. Dynamics used in skiing are usually to specifically generate pressure - but when on slippery ground on a bike that isn't going to help. This is an interesting subject I might go into in greater depth some other time. (Interestingly in skiing - upper/lower body separation leads to an entry into a turn with the upper body - but there is not much grip needed at the start of the turn.)

No Free Lunch
The Horizon program (the brief bit I was awake for) wanted to show that nearly everything we do is unconscious and the impression that we have of being aware of most that is going on at any moment is an illusion. This almost certainly accounts for the way people often do things things from singing to skiing very badly but frequently remain under the false impression that they are good. Usually, seeing a short video clip is enough to lurch people some degree towards reality. All activities, even highly skilled ones, are carried out with only a superficial level of awareness. This is probably what easily leads to the common delusion of competence where there is none - and why when there is competence it is often attributed to some nebulous and equally delusional quality called "talent". Really successful people however often say that their success is 9/10th work and 1/10th talent - recognizing that there is no free lunch.

When discovering a new subject we learn the "rules" as quickly as possible and then just get on with the task. Usually this leads us to focus on external goals - like getting faster or stronger, finishing, winning etc. Whatever happens the superficial (lower) level of awareness tends to remain and we then wonder why there is no real progress or why we get injured. Ski racers train for many years and only a very few ever succeed with many abandoning skiing forever. This is an example of Neanderthal Coaching at its absolute worst. The learning (and lack of it) is almost purely unconscious adaptation and then there is brutal natural selection against the clock to generate a "team". The few who are left standing at the end then claim to have "talent" - and so feel absolved of any need to ever explain it - which they can't anyway. This is in sharp contrast to the 1/10th view of talent held by those succeeding in more widely competitive fields - such as music or track athletics. It's not that the racers don't train hard - it's just that they remain unconscious at every level.

Good Coaching - Focus, Useful Information and Perception
Consciousness is a bit like having a telescope pointing into the Milky Way. About 2500 stars are visible to the naked eye at night at any one moment - with between 200 to 400 billion in the galaxy. We know they are there but how many do we know by name? Other than "the sun" I know Polaris and Betelgeuse in the Orion constellation - but that's it even though I studied astronomy for a while at university and orientated a North Sea oil platform by sighting stars through a theodolite. Unconsciousness is a bit like thinking that we are the centre of the universe and that all there is out there is the few thousand stars we see and they are all moving around us. The more we penetrate the universe with the telescope the more reality is revealed and our perception changes. We only see a tiny part of the galaxy focused through the telescope but we see it much better and that helps us to interpret reality overall more accurately and objectively. Over time we construct a different perception of the universe. The reinterpretation requires more than the telescope unfortunately. A chimp looking at the stars through a telescope will not make a great deal out of it all - (despite it being a very smart animal in other ways). On the level of astronomy we need people like Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton to change perception. Once the hard bit is done in establishing facts and useful information the rest can be communicated to everyone else through physics teachers, media and more telescopes. Consciousness seems to have three main parts - focus, useful information and perception (which includes "understanding"). Perception is personal and is always the last stage of the process - when awareness shifts to another level. It's usually sudden and very unexpected. You need both useful information and focus for it to happen. Good coaching provides both and changes perception.

Internal Universe
We cannot focus internally with a telescope but we can do through "body sensing". The telescope is just a powerful extension of our vision but we have other senses too. The more we focus on "feeling" the more we construct a different perception of our internal universe. This internal universe is probably just as vast as the external one and we can only see a small portion of it at any time. Focusing narrows that down even more - and allows us to work out what is really going on in specific areas. The "telescope" is more than just an analogy because we are similarly engaged in  "observation" in both cases.

Useful information may come in the form of a book, video or directly from a coach. The advantage of having a coach is that correction and feedback is more direct. Ideally over time you should become your own coach in many areas of life - though people often simply don't have the time to seek out "useful information" through experimentation and experience. They should prioritise it but they don't or can't so they can compromise by using a coach. I can usually fix my own car but mostly I prefer to pay a mechanic who has the right tools and experience because I have other things to do with my time.

Training consciously actually re-programs the unconscious behaviour - giving us not only different perceptions in the process, but allowing us to improve, protect and prolong any skill or capacity. "Skill" is really just a word referring to intentionally programmed unconscious ability. If we train consciously then we experience many benefits. The constant focusing and re-focusing of the mind builds better powers of concentration and at the same time, by shutting out all the internal dialogues and chatter, it relaxes the mind. The mind becomes better connected with the body and you feel more grounded and centered physically, emotionally and metaphysically. Your sense of identity and interconnection with the world changes. Your internal universe aligns more with the external one.

When you practice anything unconsciously over time then your form will degenerate. Not only do you have to build skill perception by perception for it to be sure and solid, but you have to maintain it with focused attention to remain at the same level.

Just as we can only hope to ever explore a tiny part of the real universe, we will only ever explore a tiny part of this internal universe - but the process of doing so remains captivating, revealing and amazingly enriching at all levels. Granted it's extremely hard to find a coach in any subject who can help. Most education is "Neanderthal" at best - even for academic subjects where rote learning and exams are all that count. "Personal Development" has become a cliché and is now associated with American "Self Help" books and diets that simply don't work. It has become very easy to dismiss anything that isn't "Neanderthal" as being not much better. Perhaps justifiably certain Oriental martial arts have avoided this stigma.

I've come across concert pianists who don't even know that the musical scale they use - called "equal temperament" - is technically out of tune for every single note of any scale other than when octave intervals are sounded. The same applies to the guitar.  When the inner world cannot resonate with the outer world then there is always a disconnection. Unconscious skill, programmed only through adaptation, is empty skill, resembling the empty calories in refined sugar - all the nutrition has been removed.

Running, skiing, cycling, music - just breathing, are all potential acts that can lead to deeper connection - through conscious development. All are potential nutrition for the mind and the body.

The aim is to build up skill progressively though conscious re-programming. This requires a process of selective, narrow focus which moves sequentially from one department to another. We have to learn to do this because otherwise we automatically choose the Stoneage - it's our default setting because we evolved for that. We throw rocks unless we have rule of law and a police force to worry us. With most things being governed by the unconscious mind we have to program it well over time so that is responds in the way we would like it to. This response or skill is not controlled consciously - only the programming is. Our awareness is always limited even though it may function on different levels. With good programming at least you can be more confident that your responses are more in line with reality and your illusions will not be too deceptive. Perhaps the "ego" is really a measure of how far detached from reality our unconscious mind has been allowed to wander - and how much it remains the "centre of the universe".

Saturday, March 24, 2012

ChiRunning Focuses

Really enjoyed running up to Granier yesterday. The ChiRunning technique is amazing and I was even able to accelerate for the final part of the climb. Despite this being only the 4th run in a space of  3 weeks the time of the overall run has reduced by over 17 minutes. Each time I think it will be hard to run as fast as the previous time but then it turns out to be much easier and faster. In "Chi (Running" Danny Dryer explains that by focusing on form you will progressively gain speed and distance - and this seems to be the case. I was focused all the way on good form and avoiding the use of inefficient force. The 10 mile course is toughest on the steep descent.

Went out on the bike and climbed the same path again today but the legs were dead. In fact I felt fine and worked hard but impossible to raise either heart rate or speed even though the perceived effort level remained high.

1. The main focus was on cadence and keeping it constant - around 180 strides per minute. Muscle/tendon system efficiency is enhanced at this cadence so it's a key issue maintaining it 
2. When the gradient was steep that meant shortening the stride and when not so steep, lengthening it to gain speed. 
3. Next on the list was the foot strike - never ahead of the body and always slightly on the outside of the forefoot or midfoot. 
4. Orientating the ankle correctly so that the foot strike was accurate and there was no unnecessary loading up of the calves when climbing or heel striking when descending.
5. Careful carrying of the centre of mass just ahead of the foot strike to ensure that there was no braking effect.
6. Avoiding bending the upper body forwards from the hips so that the straighter body would allow a better extension of the glutes. Tilting from the ankles alone.
7. Active twist around the spine to load up the tendons and use them in the recovery of the leg and foot from behind.
8. Maintaining good posture with the pelvis held up at the front with the lower abdomen and the natural lordosis of the spine still present and helping to extend and open the stride behind.
9. Avoiding lifting up the knee on recovery - lifting the foot high and keeping the knee low for maximum efficiency.
10. Landing with one foot directly in front of the other and feet pointing ahead.
11. Using the feet muscles actively - stretching the ball of the foot downwards to prevent excessive pronation.
12. Avoiding any push off with the lower leg muscles at the end of the stride - picking up feet only.
13. Extending with the glutes and the unwinding of the spine to gain height.
14. Using the arms to assist the recovery and unwinding of the spine by pushing the elbows backwards.
15. Breathing low in the belly and through the nose when possible.
16. Lengthening the stride on descending - pushing the arms back harder to aid the leg recovery.
17. Keeping the knees slightly bent and looking for a soft foot strike while trying to keep up speed on the descent. (Avoiding heel strike)
18. Staying relaxed at the hips - especially during the descent where it is easy to tense up defensively.
19. Ensuring that accelerations even uphill are based on relaxation and not force.
20. Constantly returning to monitoring cadence and working through each other focus over and over.

Rotor Qring

Always keen to try anything that might help the body function more efficiently has led me to change one of the round chain wheels on the bike for an elliptical one. It's a Rotor 34T Qring 110 BCD  (A standard inside ring fits Shimano DuraAce but the outside ring must be a special format called OCP3 )

The ring is elliptical with the large axis lining up with the maximum push/pull phase and the short axis lining up with the dead spot where the feet pass over the top and bottom of the cycle. There are three possible settings but I used the "normal" OCP3 position choice for starters.  

First time using it felt a bit uncomfortable because it felt like I had to push harder on the climbs and drop down a gear - but I was tired on the day. It was later confirmed that you do have to push harder because the extra leverage on the long axis is like a 37T chain wheel. The difference can be seen in the photo - with the round Shimano ring placed on top of the Rotor Qring.

Yesterday I went out for a second workout with much fresher legs having been sidelined for a week by a cold. The difference was amazing! The real difference is noticed when switching back to the round chain wheel - it just feels horrible - like there is this long delay as you drag everything through the dead spot. If I was unconvinced on the first outing that all changed on the second.

From the beginning I really wanted Osymmetric rings but they only go down to 38T and this represents a 42T equivalent on the long axis. That's just way too much to push on a steep Alpine climb at the end of a hard day! Eventually I tracked down a single 50T Osymmetric ring for my outside ring. This is not quite the same pattern - it has a "dual elliptical" shape and is much more radical and apparently more effective. This might encourage me to do even more climbing with the 50T if it works so well. It should be a fairly unique set up on the bike but if the Osymetric ring is anything like a good as the Rotor ring then it should work very well. I'm not worried about "mixing" things because I found my body adapting immediately to whichever chain wheel was being used  between even the elliptical and the round ones.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Smart Fat Management

Watched a Horizon program on obesity yesterday and the new science of epigenetics. They basically claim that the appetite is controlled by the switching on or off of certain genes and that this is the cause of obesity. Personally I suspect that they may be confusing "cause" and "effect". They mentioned that "stress" was probably the major trigger for producing genetic changes and the hormones that create obesity. But they didn't mention that perhaps exercise and restricted diet could reset the genetic changes naturally. They make it sound like only doctors and surgeons can do that for you. What would you expect when a program is made by doctors and surgeons?  Are people a  certain weight because of the way their genes are active - or are people's genes functioning in a certain way because of their weight? It was noticeable that this question was never brought up. Why is half of the US population obese today? There is no greater stress than before but there is a lot more food around and people don't walk to work now - they use a car! Gastric surgery may reverse the genetic changes but is that the only solution?

People indulge in "comfort eating" when stressed - so it's also possible that the rapid weight gain triggers a genetic switch or even the stress itself  - but exercise reduces stress and burns calories - so where is the study showing the interplay between all of those factors? Nowhere - but the surgeon proclaimed how she was really happy to do gastric bypass surgery for her patients now because that reset the genetic switch. Nobody asked if weight loss, diet change or exercise could reset the genetic switch - or perhaps even whether a certain level of all might be needed.

This winter I didn't put on any weight whereas I normally put on about 8kg of fat during the ski season. Why? Because I managed to maintain a reasonable level of aerobic exercise and avoid eating deserts at meal times. One or two runs a week were all that it took and the eating was clearly related to the effect of the running. Hormones are not only under the control of genes but they are controlled by your activity. Aerobic exercise produces endorphine and that reduces stress almost immediately. Sustained aerobic exercise produces cortisol which accelerates fat burning. Anaerobic exercise has its own complex influence over hormones. My Android app "Endomondo" which I use for monitoring workouts always starts a session with the phrase "Release your endorphine". It did worry me that this implies that I only have one endorphine. I could picture the single protein molecule floating around in my body having been released. During both gastric flu and ordinary flu this winter I lost weight due to stopping eating. During a a normal "cold" I gained weight due to lack of activity and compulsive eating. This issue is clearly an overall "management" one concerning many factors. The key appears to be to avoid thinking that the issue is just one dimensional - which is why "dieting" is wrong and also why surgery is probably wrong. From a management perspective there is always something appropriate that can be tweaked that will influence all the other things. Certain situations such as injury or illness can be accepted as temporary and kept in perspective.

We know that excessive fat causes many illnesses - so why can't that itself be the trigger for genetic alterations? When you eat a lot of sugar you develop a "sweet tooth" - when you eat a lot of salt you need it in everything - so when you eat too much you probably create your own dependency on overeating. Perhaps all of those similar issues are triggering changes in hormone production though modified genetics - and perhaps exercise does that too.

One thing for sure is that all the gastric bypass patients that surgeon will see will be confirmed couch potatoes and all of the surgery will have probably been avoidable. No patients will have come from concentration camps or from having run a marathon.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Human KERS

Anyone following Formula 1 car racing will have heard of "KERS" or Kinetic Energy Recovery System. It basically converts the braking energy of the car into stored energy so that it can be reconverted back into a useful power boost. One of my favourite applications is in this weird vehicle - the Thrustcycle - which stores mechanical energy.

The key to efficient use of the human body for walking, running, cycling or skiing appears also to depend upon a form of KERS and in this case it's the body's system of tendons and ligaments that do the job. Interestingly, car technology uses either flywheels or batteries to store energy - but the human body uses elastic force. Evolution has amazing capacity to find efficient solutions for problems - so it's a safe bet that our bodies do this job more efficiently than an F1 car. Perhaps energy can't be stored on the scale needed for a car through "elasticity" but it would seem to be incredibly inefficient converting first of all into electrical, then chemical (battery) then back again.

Information Physics
I have a great deal of difficulty with the terminology used in physics - such as "kinetic energy" or "potential energy". They help us to calculate and build things but otherwise they don't really make sense - at least on their own. Even the word "energy" doesn't make much sense and it can't really be defined or pinned down. I'd change the name KERS to PIT - Potential Information Transducer. The most concrete thing is the universe is "information" and when we look at things from that perspective then they can make a lot more sense. What a KERS system does is convert (transduce) momentum into a re-organised (information) chemical structure (battery). The Kinetic Energy is Potential Information and here the information is captured in chemistry. The information can be re-converted back into momentum, in which case it is Kinetic Information - or it can stay in the battery where it remains as stable Structural Information (Ref: Professor Tom Stonier). This is just a different way of perceiving the same thing - but it makes sense of the world around us although it is currently weaker as a method of quantifying things.

What does all this mean to us? The human body is the most effective known information transducer known in the universe. The brain is part of this body. A human brain without the rest of the body would not actually do anything at all because all of its perceptions are based upon the physical senses.Without the senses it would be like a computer with no interfacing - completely useless and inert. Our internal universe is constructed relative to our experience of the outside world. A new born child has fully functioning eyes and brain but is blind until the world is explored through play.

When the runner's foot lands on the ground - with a mid to forefoot strike, the shock is absorbed by the tendons and ligaments. The stride extending and opening up behind pulls the hip backwards and twists the spine up to the rib cage as the shoulder and arm work in the opposite direction. All of this energy stored in the tendons and ligaments is then released generating a rebound and pulling the leg forwards using the hip flexors. Forward propulsion comes mainly from gravity making us fall forwards. The hip extensors (glutes) - extending the leg behind stop the centre of mass from losing height as it moves forwards. This ultra efficient exploitation of gravity and internal energy recovery mechanism, combined with our ability to sweat and to carry water (hands), makes the human being the most effective running machine on this planet. Remove cars and the epidemic of obesity would rapidly disappear. We are also very lazy by default.

In Cycling the foot is not static on the ground as the body passes over it - it's the other way around. The extension of the leg still demands the same action of the core and hip so we have to learn to pull the hip backwards as the leg extends against forwards against the pedal. Likewise the muscles in the foot have to be made active to compensate for the lack of sharp reflexive response with the progressive loading - so that the movement pattern resembles that of the foot and ankle in running. This coordination permits a strong use of the core muscles both in pushing down and pulling up on the other side at the same time. The power is internal and it's probably an error to try to use gravity and the weight of the upper body to pedal.

In both running and cycling it is often heard that the ideal cadence is 180 strides per minute (90 cycles as measured on a bike). Muscle/tendon elasticity has a resonant frequency in this zone which makes it most efficient. With an elastic band - if you stretch it the band will remain in that state until you release it. Tendons have a brief window of about 1/3rd of a second where they function like this and if you are too slow then the energy and information dissipates as heat. Inefficient systems produce heat. I see that all the time when skiing and my clients are sweating buckets while I'm not even warm. Using ChiRunning technique to climb a hill compared to a heel striking/push-off stride would show a similar difference in body heat produced. It's probably not an accident that top athletes don't have to drink or eat much during a performance - they are so efficient. Just recently I realised that during a steep descent when running it was necessary to maintain the same mechanics  (contrary to explained in ChiRunning where he disappointingly reverts to a heel strike). The KERS system of the rotating core - tendons, ligaments and muscles around the spine - then appears to function as a great energy capturing device that dissipates most of the energy absorbed in slowing you down. It isn't the legs acting as a brake - it's the KERS system acting as a brake. Normally even walking downhill a long way is unpleasant because the quads end up burning. Walking with Chi technique eliminates this problem. This would indicate that the solution to descending is to lengthen the stride behind and reduce the cadence. Interestingly my body informed me of this solution - very counterintuitive - a long time before I could understand why. Normally when descending we do exactly the opposite and reach far ahead landing firmly on the heel (often twisting the ankle). However when walking down steps we never land on the heel and we don't reach far ahead - we slowly lower ourselves directly over the foot that has been advanced.

Traditionally, for short turns especially, the body was meant to "coil" against the direction of the turn and then recoil, driving the skis into the new turn - or swinging them around in the air. The foot slides in skiing - just as it does in cycling - and so pulling that hip back in the middle of the body is as act that needs to be learned. The spine twists lightly in the same direction as the turn and the recoil is now used to realign the legs and upper body during the transition from one turn to another - not as a twisting force against the skis. Most of the time the motion in skiing would be like descending in running - we absorb and dissipate the energy. If the mechanics are wrong then this once again is all dealt with by the quads and they rapidly burn out. The spine also suffers great shocks and is soon damaged. When core KERS system is used then the energy is dissipated safely. For sharp very fast turns such as jump turns, short swings, short radius pivots or short fast carved turns then the KERS energy can be tapped for snappy recoil and rebound actions.

In all the cases mentioned here there is a structural organisation of the body - a basic physical pattern. This pattern exists through the way in which Kinetic Energy (Potential Information) is harnessed and used to reorganise the body. This Kinetic Energy converts into Structural Information through intelligent coordination. If the coordination is good then the conversion is efficient and effective. Get the right structure and the body is being given a present that it responds to by adapting in a constructive way - building strength, mobility, flexibility, elasticity, power, vascular circulation and generally good health. Get the wrong structure and you end up with a damaged and broken structure - with bad health. Appropriate and efficient transduction between energy and information in both directions is the key to effectiveness and longevity. This process is what the ancient Chinese referred to as Chi. It flows through the body when coordination is correct. Not a single molecule in your body is "alive" - but life is tied to the organisation and pattern of those molecules. Structural information is the structure of life itself  - and it is fed through various forms of energy that are potential information. We call something "living" if it is able to continue this process of transduction. Seeds that have been stored for thousands of years either dry or frozen are seen to be in "suspended animation" - life having been suspended.  Someone can die and then be re-animated if the delay is brief enough that structure does not decay.

We can get power - therefore information - from metabolising food in our muscles and brain. We also have gravity as an external source of motion - or rather the elastic force of the ground preventing it. Meanwhile we can store energy and release it again within our system of tendons and ligaments. We can create efficiency through more effective leverage with better mechanics. The human KERS is the ignored part of our system but it is also the part we need to understand the deepest.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

John, Susan Day 3

Warming up today we used the skating skills that had been developed yesterday. Although normal body temperature is between 36.5°C and 37°C muscles need to be warmed up to between 40°C and 42°C to work best. Skating is a pretty good way to do this.

The warm up didn't last very long because John was struggling with the skating. Yesterday we had built up to skating very progressively and we would need to spend a moment repeating some of that again today.

Communication and Feedback
I appreciated that John was very open about discussing the difficulties that he was having and that he was prepared to ask questions and express his confusion. In doing so John helped to direct me towards dealing with the most relevant issues with much greater accuracy. 

Muscle Pain - Alignment
Central to the issue was that John's quadriceps were still burning up very quickly despite all that we were doing. The muscle pain appeared to be coming from a combination of two factors - hard braking after losing control and general tension in the body. It was tempting to think that this might simply improve with time and relaxation. At this point I decided to tackle to issue head on by working on the alignment of the legs and hips so that the load would not be so concentrated on the quadriceps. For this we had to spend some time developing an understanding of the "chi" stance. With the skis off we did some walking uphill - first of all with the feet being placed ahead for each stride and the quads being used to push up with. Secondly the stride was extended behind with the body falling forwards and the other leg just being lifted, swung underneath the body and dropped directly below to the ground. The first way would rapidly burn out the quads but the second way used the glutes (hip extensors) instead and is much more efficient. Applying the same principle to skiing means that on the supporting leg (usually the outside one in a turn) the hip has to be pulled backwards. In skiing the foot can't extend behind so only the hip does. This causes a twisting in the spine in the direction of the turn - when the pelvis is correctly isolated. In doing this the leg completely re-aligns below the hip and the bones stack up more in line removing some of the load from the quads. The power of extension then also comes mainly from the glutes. If the support leg can be used in this way for the whole turn then it seriously avoids quadriceps "burn out". 

While Jonn was able to understand and achieve this at low speeds it did not stop the legs from burning. At least "alignment" was eliminated as a direct cause - although it would definitely play a part at some level. Susan got the idea when applied to skating. During her work on pivoting yesterday she had been throwing her right hip to the outside of the turn so building awareness in this new direction would be a great help towards improving those other skills.

Dynamics - One Ski
When the issue was not resolved directly I decided to ski behind John for a few turns to see if I could see anything in particular. In reality there was nothing that looked really out of place - but once again John's feedback helped a lot. I said that despite seeing his body move into the turn correctly it somehow seemed like he was still pushing his skis outwards. John immediately agreed that he felt this - which confirmed this observation. With the leg being pushed outwards it's practically impossible to keep it aligned properly and to keep the hip in the correct "countered" position with the slight twist in the spine. 

John then told me that after completing a turn he felt that he didn't know how to start the next turn. All of this was now telling me that although he had understood the theory of dynamics he still didn't really perceive it properly. 

Our earlier assessment of John's muscle pain coming from braking and tension might have been partially correct but my experience has told me consistently that pain comes from lack of dynamics - normally from moving the centre of mass in the wrong direction. John threw me off the trail because he actually did always move his centre of mass in the right direction. 

Finally - the loss of control when he would fly off down the hill also pointed to poor dynamics - and so the braking and loading up of the quads here was once again just an effect of other issues. Gradually I started to see that John's problem was that although he was moving in the right direction he was simply not moving enough. ALL of the other issues were consequences of this one problem. With most people the "pushing outwards" of the legs and feet is very visible because it happens right at the start of the turn and continues. John however was managing to move into the turn without doing this but then because he failed to get far enough into the turn he would pick up speed and then push the legs outwards to deal with the speed - at a point when the leg action is not so visible. Only skiing closely behind him could I see the signs of it. 

Answering John's question about starting the turn I re-explained dynamics and how to accelerate (not "lean") the body into the turn. This clarified the issue to John. When he tried to really accelerate his centre of mass laterally though he fell over. The outside ski's inner edge just dug in and tracked a straight line so that he fell inwards. I had to copy him to feel properly what was happening and then understood that he was keeping weight on his inside ski to some extent and this was stopping him from moving and committing pressure to the new outside ski. The result was the outside ski couldn't function properly and just became pulled over onto its edge. Naturally this caused John to be even more cautious with dynamics.  

The answer to all of this was to lift the downhill leg and stand briefly up on the uphill ski (uphill edge) and launch the dynamics from there. This then revealed other issues but now in a constructive way. It became apparent that John would have to rock his foot and engage his adductor muscles in the uphill leg prior to doing anything else. (PREPARATION). He would then have to briefly stand on that leg and hip 100% (COMMITMENT). From there he would have to fall sharply with gravity pulling the centre of mass down and slightly forwards into a turn. This doesn't mean pretend to fall it means (REALLY FALL). This immediately stopped John's ski edge from catching and ironically (but predictably) stopped him from falling. The speed and turn radius came under control and although the hip might still have swung out a bit the legs practically stopped being pushed outwards - removing most of the crippling strain. We practised nothing other than this for the rest of the session. I told John to stop immediately if he lost it and re-compose himself before trying again.  

Although I had been correct to assume at the very start that the leg pain was from poor dynamics it took a lot of work on all of the basics to reveal the exact nature of the problem and how to specifically get around it. 

Meanwhile Susan was repeating the same exercises in the background and struggling a bit with staying centred on the skis. I explained about "freefloat" and how the way you stand vertical when facing across the hill with your skis are horizontal feels exactly the same when you go down a slope standing perpendicular to the hill. The pressure under the foot is reduced in proportion to the steepness of the slope but that's all. You don't feel like you are "leaning forwards" at all. The key is to anticipate the acceleration downhill and move the body into the perpendicular along with the dynamics. Susan had a tendency to be stuck in the vertical, especially when the turn was tighter and quick anticipation was required. With the only tactile feedback coming from the feet I explained that it helped to try to feel contact with the shin on the front of the boot at all times and also to stand over a point just in front of the heel at all times. If you manage this then you are pretty central over the skis and have anticipated the inclination of the slope and the accelerations correctly. Just searching for this feedback in the ski boots will generally get you there.

John worked with a cheerful determination despite falling and the tedious nature of the exercises and he made excellent progress in getting to the root of the problem and clearing a path ahead. Once this problem is completely out of the way then John will be able to retain much more energy to ski longer and farther and so will advance much more rapidly. 

Susan moves very well but is easily tempted to be lazy and revert back to her familiar two footed heel push. Intuition and feeling are the keys for Susan and with skiing being a tactile "feeling" sport more than anything else this is to her advantage.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Rowdy Session 2

Today's session with Rowdy turned out to be interesting. I've not been getting a lot of feedback so far from people regarding the "chi stance" so the fact that Rowdy was working on that for himself and it was protecting his back made the session more valuable.

Rowdy was slightly confused about the overall stance so we first of all looked into that. The issue was that he was finding it necessary to pull back the inside hip - but this directly negated the advantage of pulling back the outside hip and reduced the twist in the spine and the activation of the tendons and ligaments throughout the midsection. Rowdy had been making this correction to try to achieve a stronger alignment - but hadn't realised that the strongest alignment of the outside comes from just pulling back the outside hip. 

Magic Chi Spots
There is always a question about which part of the foot to stand on. Stand on the heel and keep your weight there and the ankle will go strong. Stand raised up on the ball of the foot and the ankle will go strong but rocking the foot is harder.  Danny Dryer asserts that a point just in front of the heel activates the core muscles - so that is a tempting option. Trying this option several weeks ago I found that the foot could still be rocked, but that to keep the ankle strong the foot muscles had to be active and working. Perhaps lots of barefoot running has made me much more aware of my feet muscles - but they seem to work very easily now and this option is much more attractive than any of the others. The chi stance (twisting of the spine in the direction of the turn and hips countered) seems to work in conjunction with this magic spot under the foot and keeps the shin in contact with the front of the ski boot - a second magic spot that you aim to feel all the time. In the first part of the video clip above Rowdy is applying all of the above successfully. The only problem is that he still has a glitch in the turn transitions sometimes so we next had a look at that issue.

Flowing Transition
When a motorbike comes out of a turn it can be helped with a burst of accelerator to get it upright. Likewise in skiing the push up from the leg at the end of the turn should only be to assist the skis bringing the skier up and there should be a resonance in the action - it shouldn't be a separate glitch. Rowdy had to feel the ski bringing him up and then use the power of the leg in harmony with it. In addition he had to avoid the lower arm and shoulder lurching forwards at the end of the turn because in reality the shoulders and arms should be  starting to move back in the direction of the next turn and only the future outside hip should be engaging in such a "countering" action. This gives the impression that the shoulders are fixed facing almost downhill and that the upper body is still - but it's a very false impression. the upper body is very active - especially in the core. Rowdy manages to flow better in the second part of the video and makes better turn transitions.

Seated Stance, Turn Apex, Early Pressure
Standing on a steep pitch with the skis off and facing downhill I showed Rowdy that I could sit down without my weight going backwards. This placed my feet and knees in front of my body and below the centre of mass on the mountain. Maintaining this stance when skiing and aiming to maximise turn pressure (apex) at the side (instead of below) would allow much stronger skiing. Aiming to use momentum to make the turn apex over to the side means that there is no overload of pressure at the end of the turn when lined up against gravity. The stance keeping the feet permanently lower down the hill than the body means that a pivot can always be included in the start of a turn if required. The knees and feet ahead add to security and stability. The chi stance permits the hip to drop down into the turn early and securely so as to generate pressure from both dropping low and angulation both causing greater edge angles - helping to bring the turn apex earlier in the turn. Rowdy did a good job of using this while descending Santons - the slush and ice not affecting him as a result.

John, Susan Day 2

The session began with some revision of yesterday's work. I suggested starting from the bottom and working upwards - so that meant "rocking" the feet. John was immediately in trouble with the carving skis locking on edge and sending him flying off down the hill. I spotted that this was partly caused by tension but also due to a complete lack of dynamics - so I changed the plan and we set to work on dynamics. Once again John ran into difficulty. This time the problem was caused by both rotating the body into the turn and dipping the inside shoulder into the turn. This was a regression from all the progress made yesterday and more reflected John's crisis at the end of yesterday's session when he went into defensive mode on skiing down to La Daille. We tried a few different solutions so that the body would move naturally as if against a solid wall (or against my shoulder when we did the static exercise) but when that didn't work we changed the approach altogether.

I explained to John that sometimes it is not productive to persist at frustrating problems because the real underlying issue lies hidden elsewhere. It's tempting just to keep trying over and over again - but that's seldom the best or quickest way to get a result.

I suspected that by working on skating that John's movement pattern would modify in the right way and that this would help him in general with moving the centre of mass. 

First thing was to check how John and Susan were at skating. Susan was very good and comfortable at skating on the flat. John had a bit of trouble with the skis slipping away from him slightly on each push off. I explained about rocking the feet inwards and feeling the adductor muscles - just as we had worked on yesterday. This has to be done on both legs with the skis diverging. From there is is just a case of lifting one leg and falling forwards between the skis and pulling the lifted leg forwards then placing it down below the body again. Gravity causes the propulsion and the correctly edged skis grips to allow this to happen. It's not even necessary to "push off". This worked very well for John. 

Next, on the complete flat we stepped sideways around in a circle (to the right) by diverging the ski tips (to the right) and then closing them (to the right). This makes a circle around a point just behind the tails of the skis and displaces the centre of mass progressively around - the body facing outwards from the centre of the circle. This was a prelude to travelling forwards and stepping the skis the same way to project the centre of mass incrementally into the centre of an arc. Both John and Susan were able to effect turns on moderate terrain by stepping incrementally inwards. Both did this correctly due to the skating action and this avoided inappropriate upper body rotation (which had been apparent in the earlier dynamics).

Eventually the skating was brought down to a single skate per turn. The exercise was started by skating directly downhill and then allowing the dynamics to increase by falling more to the inside of the supporting ski  - this converts the skating to skiing as the ski gets the opportunity to close a turn. Eventually there is no need to diverge the skis and the skating rhythm and active use of the legs is maintained uninterrupted. Both John and Susan managed to do this well at the start of the exercise - only losing control and coordination later as speed increased.

The aim of the work was to make clear the relationship between skating and skiing and to show how skiing is really disguised skating.

I explained how the timing of dynamics (dropping down into a turn and being brought back up to finish) matches the vertical timing of the legs in skating - going down then pushing up. It is important to time the two to work together so that there is a resonance between the two and a shared rhythm.

John managed to execute several effective pivots from the uphill ski. This is a fundamental skill but very tricky to learn so to manage this at this stage is very good.

I assisted both John and Susan through a few pivots so that they could both feel the basic movement pattern.     They were then shown how to replace the support that I gave them by strongly using the ski poles planted downhill from the feet. This permits the centre of mass to move downhill from the outside ski without the edge changing early in the turn. The ski pivots downhill from the front due to a combination of gravity pulling the centre of mass and keeping the adductors tight so that the ski slides inwards. Prior to this I explained how the foot rocks onto its inner edge and the shaft of the ski boot keeps the ski on its outer edge - allowing the adductors to be used and allowing the ski to slip freely into the turn with no resistance from the inside edge. Susan was also improving with this after a certain amount of persistence. We did some sideslipping and Susan worked out for herself that a pivoted turn is done mainly from a sideslip. The turn also requires the feet to be close together to keep them further down the mountain than the centre of mass and to keep them always on the uphill edges both through the start of the turn and the end of the turn (edges changing  when the skis point directly downhill.)

Pivot/Skate Connection
My old way of teaching the pivot had been from standing on the uphill ski and diverging the tip of the downhill ski off downhill and in the air. This was referred to as "inside leg steering". The idea was that it led the centre of mass slightly downhill and the top ski would slip into a pivot - while still on the uphill edge. In effect this was a skating stance with the skis diverging and the body falling forwards and downhill between the skis. The only difference compared to a skating step turn was that being on the uphill edge the ski would slip into a pivot. Skating and dynamics were clearly present.

Friday, March 16, 2012

John, Susan Day 1

Initial Assessment

Stance is quite good and there is a natural motion of the body into the turn. It is obvious however that the outside leg is being pushed away from the body and the is a general lack of movement. On flat terrain such as in the video clip this will work, but on steeper terrain there will be a lack of control. This is all that is visible at this stage. Despite John finding that his legs would tie up in cramp that cannot be predicted from looking at his skiing. 

The stance is confused with pressure on the front of the boots but the body being left behind in the vertical plane. Weight tends to be on the inside ski and there is a two footed push outwards of the ski linked to an attempt to keep the upper body facing downhill. In spite of those issues there is still a natural tendency to move the body into the turn. Susan would be unable to ski off piste or on ice with her current technical form.

Dynamics Part 1
With both skiers being able to ski we went straight from warming up into learning dynamics. John was familiar with the classic concept of snowplough turning and weight transfer by moving the body over the outside ski. For John the explanation of dynamics presented him with a clear alternative, opposite to his previous training. I provided physical support for him to lean against to feel the different effects of moving the Centre of Mass - and specifically accelerating the centre of mass in the direction of the turn to generate pressure on the supporting (outside) leg.

Susan believed that she was entering a turn by standing on the inside ski while "edging" the outside ski. That's quite original, but not as crazy as it might sound to some people. This was happening to her because of her two footed stance but the actual understanding is likely to have been a corruption of something that she was taught in the past. It took a couple of repetitions of the explanation of dynamics before Susan was able to snap out of her original understanding and fully understand the new one. 

Both skiers were able to progressively integrate the new movement, beginning with "swings to the hill" and eventually linking turns in both directions. I explained and demonstrated that "dynamic range" is a skier's real limitation. Most skiers believe that they have to stand up in "balance" and not fall over. In fact when they try to fall over (using dynamics) they cannot get more that around 20° towards the snow. The better the skier the further this range can be extended.  

John initially had trouble pushing against my shoulder because he was not able to grip with his ski edges - so we had to work on the basics of rolling the feet and using the adductor muscles on the inside of the leg just so that he could have a basic platform to move his centre of mass.

I explained how the centre of mass is an abstract point that we learn to physically identify - like the point of a pencil against paper - and to specifically move to direct our skiing.

There were a few problems with the skis catching on edge and carving unintentionally. To overcome this tendency I taught about pushing the feet forwards to tighten the turn radius (and stop the ski from jamming on edge). This was done statically with the skis off. The inside leg was used as a support to pivot around the heel and using the poles pointed downhill for additional support the weight had to be moved directly over this foot and the other leg pushed forwards to make a line arcing in the the snow. This feeling of resistance on the boot sole is the feeling that accompanies "pushing forward" of the outside ski during a turn. Pushing the foot forward during a turn makes the ski cut more actively in front of the skier's trajectory and tightens the turn radius - the ski doesn't actually move ahead while this happens - the turn tightens instead. On steeper terrain bigger dynamics with a quicker push forward of the outside foot guarantees control over speed and a sharp turn.

I asked Susan to avoid trying to face downhill and pushing her heels out to the side. She had to follow the skis around as if on a bicycle for the time being - toppling sideways into (and out of) the turns. I also asked her to ski with the feet slightly further apart so that she could feel the legs working independently and the pressure effects of dynamics on the outside ski.

We went indoors to remove ski boots and look at how the feet need to work in the ski boots. The basic message was to lock the ankles and rock the sub-taler joints below the ankles to rotate/rock the feet from edge to edge. I showed that the easiest way to do this is to be on the heel - but that there were other options. The main thing is to avoid collapsing the ankle and leaning on the ski boot, which both were doing to some extent (Susan more than John). The rolling of the feet was linked to the adductor muscles pulling inwards when a foot was placed on its inside edge. This pulling inwards of the adductor muscles and rolling of the foot is combined in practice with the motion of the centre of mass towards the turn centre - everything moving towards the turn centre and assisting the directional force of the ski towards the turn centre. We went back out onto the piste and applied this to turns.

Dynamics Part 2
John was having trouble from accelerating off downhill at the start of the turn and then having to brake suddenly to bring speed under control. The "foot forward" process wasn't enough to prevent this at this stage. To attempt to bring John's speed under control we moved on to working on the dynamics of the second part of the turn - that is - how to exit a turn. I explained how a turn resembles a motorbike turn on the flat. The bike drops down into the turn and comes back up out of it. In skiing this is more complicated because it isn't on the flat. If the turn finishes with the skier going across the hill he must come right out to the perpendicular to the mountain to get the skis flat and truly complete the turn. Most people stop short in the vertical with the skis still on the uphill edges and so they find it hard to start the next turn. I demonstrated "hanger turns" where I obviously stayed on the lower ski as it brought me up and out of the turn to at least the perpendicular then just changed leg to fall into the next turn. This once again helped John and by now Susan's stance had improved - she had automatically become centred over her skis and was supporting herself on one foot. Her stance was slightly wider and stronger. John's stance had gone from being wide to becoming narrow and was looking better too. Both were now about hip width apart and looking more natural with good dynamics on gentle terrain. 

On steeper terrain John was not holding it together yet and he was aware of a great deal of tension in his muscles. We did an exercise with the arm to demonstrate how you become paralysed when all the muscles are tightened and there is limited selective use of the muscles. John was not at the stage yet where he could relax enough to avoid this happening to his legs.

I explained the illusion of "centrifugal" force and how the only real force is centripetal (towards the centre) and how we have to act to work with such forces and not to resist imaginary "outward" forces. When all the muscles pull inwards towards the turn centre (along with the force from the skis) then we can avoid unnecessary "resistance" and tension.

Pivot Intro
In one last effort to help John to avoid losing control and accelerating off downhill at the start of the turns we took a quick look at pivoting. John was able to execute a pivot from the uphill edge of his uphill ski surprisingly well for a first effort. Unfortunately he was too tired by now to hold this together when skiing. One of the greatest fallacies of traditional teaching is to place people on the inside edges of the skis in a snowplough and brainwash them to thinking that all turns are made on the inside edges. This causes a lack of control over accelerations and makes "fall line" skiing impossible. Not only does the snowplough have this effect but it teaches the wrong muscle coordination - pushing outwards - from the start. John was not ready for pivoting just yet and we had not even looked at "skating" and other basic skills - but sometimes people can pick up the pivot very quickly and gain a major level of control over speed - so it was worth trying at this stage. We will look at pivoting in much greater detail tomorrow.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Timothy, Rodion, Roc

Timothy consolidated his confidence today with more mileage in varied terrain, steep off-piste and challenging snow conditions - varying from ice, to wind pack, melted spring snow and slush. He is light enough to stay on the surface of everything so that helps to build confidence at this early stage. 

Timothy has found a good "skating" stance, naturally well placed on his hip joints. When I see something like this I don't try to change anything in that department but just try to find ways to make use of it and strengthen it. Skiing steep terrain was one way to reinforce the stance so that his body remembers it the next time he skis.

Today Timothy was already less against the back of his ski boots. All children lean against the back of their ski boots - simply because they are light enough to get away with it. This isn't necessarily a bad thing because it gets their feet ahead - where they need to be. There are much better ways to get the feet ahead - but it's probably more important that they are are ahead than any issues about leaning on the back of the boots. 

Victor's skiing was also becoming stronger and much more fluid. The combination of the chi stance and racing timing (apex of the arc at the side and not below) were allowing him to move with greater freedom. I'd still like to see the upper body being more involved and active. The answer to this is probably to work on  spreading the upper/lower body separation all the way from the hip up to the ribs - twisting the spine more actively (chi skiing!) Even when the spine is twisted the other way as in traditional technique it is still active. Most people learn to block the upper body and keep it still with a view to working the lower body against it. This is often interpreted as the job of the core muscles - to stabilise. This is not correct as the core muscles have to be used in a more dynamic way - as a primary source of power.

Turn Completion Dynamics
Both Victor and Timothy needed to work a little on the turn completion when on steep terrain and in challenging snow. Those conditions make people "hold back" a little. The key is to first of all be well placed "inside" the turn with the centre of mass down towards the snow and the bottom facing uphill. Once the turn is secure and stable so that there will be no surprises you then use the pressure that this low position builds up (increased edge angle) to stand strongly on the outside ski and allow yourself to be lifted up and out of the turn. This lifting up gets the centre of mass flowing smoothly into the next turn without the need for any stepping or "glitches". If the turn is closed off - that is the end of the turn is downhill instead of over to the side  - then this "lifting up" action has to be more deliberate and stronger. If judged skilfully this can still be combined with a pivoting action. Dynamics are however more important than whether or not the ski pivots from the uphill edge. You can make mistakes with "pivoting" and get away with it but not with dynamics.

Rodion was desperate to get into poles to prepare for his race the following day - however, unlike Val d'Isère there were no slalom training facilities outside either of the two main ski school operations. This wasn't really a problem as Rodion has not been properly race trained all year at his school because there has been no use of slalom protection. All the children have been assumed to be at the same level and treated as if they have never been in slalom poles before - which is totally inappropriate for Rodion as an individual and a big failure of his school at this level. Skiing is important to Rodion and it's incredible that his level has not been respected by a school based specifically  in a ski resort in the Swiss Alps.

Accepting that the racing would be a formality - with no protection or correct preparation for tactics in the poles - we focused on technical skiing and how to be more secure and maintain speed. I just looked for the main weaknesses in Rodion's skiing and set to work to improve them. The main weakness in Rodion's skiing can be seen in the first section of the video clip. His entire upper body is counter rotated to the extreme (facing downhill at the end of the turn). This is nonsense that he has been taught recently in Switerland. It is causing him to let his outside ski fall behind his body and his inside ski to slip ahead so that he falls backwards and onto his inside ski. The fastest cure for this is to learn the "chi skiing" stance. This stance also gets the body to move in the correct manner for clearing slalom poles with the outside ski pole - so this was the obvious place to begin.

Chi Skiing Stance
We worked on the chi skiing stance - with the spine twisting the opposite way to his original stance - and immediately he was stronger. 

Clearing Slalom Poles
Once this was secure we applied it to clearing slalom poles correctly - by using my ski poles stuck in the ground to hit. The point was to show that correct technique makes this pole clearing automatic - and that you don't need to "reach" for the poles or to rotate your body in an effort to do so.

Generating Pressure
We worked on generating pressure by exaggerating the vertical movement pattern that Rodion had remembered from Zermatt. I explained that with the hip in the chi position he could drop more into the turn and harder. This increased edge would cause pressure to build quickly and for the direction change to be more powerful. I also pointed out that the most important way to increase this pressure was to increase speed. This has the greatest influence of all on turning power and is a secret that only racers understand. Everyone else tries to brake instead thinking that it will make turning easier.

Race Timing
We worked on brining the apex of the turn to the middle instead of the end so that speed would be used to generate pressure and not gravity - thus avoiding braking and slowing down as much as possible.

Lower Stance
I showed how a seated stance facing downhill keeps the feet downhill of the body without falling backwards and getting caught on the inside ski. This stance combines with the race timing for the most effective and secure outcome.

Front of Ski Pressure
The wasn't just an issue of generating overall pressure to deal with but also where the pressure was placed. Rodion for various reasons was only pressurising the backs of the skis and was not using the front of the ski. I explained that just as with a bike or a car it's the front that has the most influence on changing direction. You can aim to pressure the ski at any point from the binding toe piece to the tip of the ski. This may appear to be abstract - but so is the "centre of mass" of the body - or the tip of a pencil against paper - but we learn to treat those things like we can feel them directly. With this in mind and the chi skiing stance keeping him better centered over his feet, Rodion was able to use the ski much more effectively.

There were a lot of things for Rodion to work on. Rodion's skiing without those changes was ineffective for slalom as his stance was causing severe loss of grip and falling onto the inside ski - so there was nothing to lose in trying to change things now. In addition the chi skiing mechanics reveal a much deeper understanding of how the body functions so the sooner he starts to use this the better for many reasons. Rodion is a fast learner - but he can also pick up the standard ski school nonsense quickly too so it's important to safeguard against this. Not many people can succeed when exposed to unintelligent coaching.

Liliana had no technical input today - but she was working away on things by herself. Her main issue is lack of fitness - and NO - it's not Victor's fault Liliana! If you are not fit it's because you have not made it a priority in your life - and that's probably because it's very hard and painful work that is extremely easy to avoid. It's no accident that most of America's population is obese! It's much easier to go and eat than to go for a run.

Roc was present at his post on the peak over his cliff face. 

We learned that he is there all winter - it's his home. I'm sure that the restaurant isn't specifically named after him and that the "Since 1959" isn't referring to him - but it might be!