The Dumb Guy in the Room

For the last five years my official job title at Nuance Communications has been “Research Project Manager,” which means that I manage projects and facilitate communications for a department of about 20 PhD Speech Scientists. Although all of them are in the field of Speech Research now, their backgrounds demonstrate a good deal of diversity. There are at least four Physicists, one or two Electrical Engineers, and several Mathematicians. The head of the department has a PhD in Number Theory.

It has been fun being the dumb guy in the room.*

Being the dumb guy gives me a degree of freedom to ask dumb questions (as long as I don’t ask the same dumb question more than once). If anyone complains, I’m always happy to remind them that I hold a B.A. degree in Music and English Literature. That usually confuses them long enough for me to make my escape.

It’s reasonable to ask how I ever got this job. In fact, my early life turned out to be the perfect preparation. Three of my four siblings were scientists: Robin (an Astrophysicist by training, who left that field to become a Medical Doctor), Tim (an Electrical Engineer), and Jeff (a Computer Scientist by training, now a photographer). My other sister, Karen, is “only” a liberal arts grad, but unlike me, she consistently got good grades and now she’s a college professor. Basically what I’m saying is that in both my early family life and later in my professional life, I’ve had a lot of experience making my way among people much smarter and much better educated than me.

By now you’ might be wondering what any of this has to do with running.

At last week’s clinic for High School athletes and coaches, there were, in addition to the sessions of hands-on coaching for the kids, a handful seminars just for the coaches. At the seminars, some of the clinicians would talk about training or technique or practice planning. All good stuff.

On the second day, I was sitting in a seminar and the well-respected and very experienced sprint coach who was leading it said something that didn’t completely make sense to me. The topic was circuit training, and the discussion had turned to the distinction between “neural days” (characterized by very high intensity/force output) and “general days” (characterized by moderate intensity/moderate force output across a broader range of muscle groups). The experienced coach explained that circuit training was for “general days,” and that optimal training alternated neural days and general days, hence sprint style workouts with circuits style workouts.

It was a familiar restatement of the “hard-easy” theory of training, updated with modern terminology.

But surely the explanation begged the question. Circuit training includes a wide variety of exercises, representing a spectrum of intensities (everything from rocket jumps to med ball throws to sit ups). As for neural activities like high-intensity sprinting/accelerating, well the training load (and need for recovery) for a given workout is obviously affected not only by the intensity, but the volume of the work. So it seemed to me that, in practice, it would be very hard to draw a sharp distinction between neural and general days. Whence, then, this insistence on alternating between the one and the other? (It also puzzled me that this was the second day of the clinic and the kids had been accelerating and sprinting (neural activities) on both days. Didn’t that violate the model?)

So I raised my hand.

“Under what circumstances would you give athletes two hard days in a row?  I asked.

The experienced coach repeated that this wasn’t a good idea. “But why not?” I asked. “What is it about neural days that requires 48 hours recovery? After all, at multi-day meets sprinters routinely compete in all-out sprints on consecutive days, so we know it’s possible in competition. Why is it off-limits in training?”

The experienced coach was clearly surprised that I still had not grasped the point, so he patiently explained again the hard-easy theory, adding no new detail. At this point, some of the other coaches in the audience started taking turns explaining to me what a bad idea it was to schedule neural days back-to-back, how it would lead to injuries, etc. Well, that shut me up — for the moment.

But at the break, I went up to the experienced coach and tried again to find out where this prohibition came from. I knew that many sprinters (at all levels) — not to mention soccer and basketball players and other athletes — trained hard on consecutive days and some, at least, had success doing so. And anyway, weren’t individual athletes different in their ability to recover from hard training? Where was the research, I wondered.

Finally, the experienced (and exasperated) coach said that of course, coaches needed to know their athletes, and adjust workout volume and intensity based on many factors — training age, level, resilience, etc. — to meet the athletes’ needs. “Aha,” I thought, “So it’s not a hard and fast rule at all, but only a guideline based on average responses to training. A coach will tweak the template based on the individual athlete, including their ability to tolerate the work. And the template itself is based not on research, but on observations about what seems to work for most kids.”

I recalled something I had heard from one of the other speakers the previous night: he had said something like “Coaching does not consist of writing the workouts but of observing the workouts.

I also remembered the many times at my day job when results of experiments would seem to suggest some simple conclusion and our lead researcher would caution, “don’t believe these results; the tests are flawed, the data are flawed, and we don’t know what’s really going on.

I’m still the dumb guy in the room. I’m still surrounded by people WAY more knowledgeable and successful than I’ll ever be. But it gives me pause to realize that even the smart guys, even the successful guys, even the guys who do this for a living, even they don’t always know what’s really going on.

* You might think I’m being disingenuous describing myself as the “dumb guy,” since I’m not particularly dumb, at least when compared with the average adult product of the American education system. But I can still be plenty dumb relative to the minds around me. It’s similar to when Kevin tells me how slow he is. You can be faster than 90% of the people in a race, but still feel like the slow guy compared to the thoroughbreds at the front. I guess the moral is, if you want to feel fast, run with slower people. If you want to feel smart, find dumber friends.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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