Wednesday, April 25, 2007

commentary: endurance sports and kung fu (part 3) - training cycles

something that i'm finding intriguing, but not entirely delineated, is the notion of training cycles between endurance sports and kung fu. conceptually, both have it. practically, they express the concept in slightly different ways. what i find interesting is that in some ways the motivation, manner, and logic for scheduling training cycles is the same, while in other ways they are radically different. i suspect, but cannot say for any certainty, that some cross-pollination of ideas would benefit both sides.

in using the term "training cycles," i am referring to the scheduling of training sessions according to patterns on the calendar and clock. in a training cycle, workouts are not always the same, but rather follow an evolution of exercises and variation in duration, intensity, and focus marking a progression taking place over the course of time. i've seen this in both endurance sports and kung fu training.

endurance sports

the purpose for training cycles in endurance sports is simple: improving performance. performance is the ultimate criteria in determining the value of training; if performance improves then the training is valuable, if it doesn't then it is not. as a result, training cycles are aimed at nothing more than maximizing race day performance. anything else (health, self-discipline, etc.) are secondary.

in endurance sports, training cycles take the form of iterative escalations familiar to most athletes: base, build, peak, recovery. these iterations follow smaller-scale "micro" cycles that occur over the course of days or weeks, as well as larger-scale "macro" cycles that are conducted over periods of months or competition seasons. macro-cycles are composed of multiple micro-cycles that are repeated over and over again in escalation, just as workouts within each micro-cycle follow an escalation. sometimes there are mutiple levels to a macro or micro-cycle.

for example, in training for a particular race in June, an athlete may follow a 6-month training schedule commencing in January. following the principle of base, build, peak, recovery, the athlete will set an overall macro-cycle with 8 weeks of base, 8 weeks of build, 6 weeks of peak development, and 2 weeks of recovery. this macro-cycle will be further set into smaller "sub" macro cycles, with the base phase organized into 2 4-week cycles (with 1 week base, 1 week build, 1 week peak, 1 weak recovery), the build phase similarly divided into 2 4-week cycles, the peak phase set into 2 3-week cycles (with 1 week build, 1 week peak, 1 weak recovery), and the recovery phase treated as a taper into race day. each week is then set as a micro-cycle, with 4-5 days dedicated to base, build, or peak-specific workouts and 2-3 days for recovery.

the base phase is meant to develop aerobic capacity (increasing the body's ability to process oxygen) and aerobic efficiency (improving the body's ability to generate output for a given oxygen intake rate). the build phase is meant to improve output by developing muscular endurance (the ability of muscles to sustain a required level of physical output without fatigue). the peak phase is meant to generate power and strength as well as increase anaerobic threshold (the point at which lactic acid accumulates in the muscles, causing failure and cramping). the recovery phase is meant to allow the body to rest, with time and fuel that enables cellular repair and production to lock in the gains from the other phases.

in general, for endurance sports, the base and build phases are marked by workouts of long duration, and there is an increasing level of intensity (but decreasing duration) in workouts going from base to build to peak phase. recovery phase workouts tend to be short, with low intensity. the general rule is given in a commonly expressed analogy: a person's performance capability is like a house; the higher or larger you want the house (performance in terms of power or endurance) to go, the bigger the foundation (the aerobic and anaerobic capacities) needs to be.

"sub" macro-cycles or micro-cycles within a macro-level base period, while following their own base-build-peak-recovery pattern, will adjust all the workouts in the pattern to match the macro-cycle. this would mean that within the base phase in the above example, the base week in the 1st 4-week sub-macro-cycle would be shorter in duration and lower intensity than the base week of the 2nd 4-week set in the phase, and would be much shorter in duration and lower in intensity compared to any base week in the build or peak phases. similarly the workouts during the 2-week recovery (taper) phase would tend to be shorter and lighter than the recovery workouts in the other phases.

the reasoning behind this kind of pattern is that the body's development functions like a furnace operating under a bellows pump. a furnace, to some degree, can get hotter simply by adding more fuel to the fire. however, the process is long and tends to asymptotically reach a finite temperature limit. in comparison, a furnace that is operating with a bellows pump can become dramatically hotter and more quickly for the same amount of fuel, with each blast of the bellows charging the flames of the furnace to a progressively higher temperature.

similarly, sports medicine has found that training under a constantly increasing workload initially provides a corresponding increase in a body's capacities, but that the relationship eventually leads to diminishing returns and potential breakdown. like the furnace with a bellows pump, the body's capacities can be dramatically expanded to greater scales by giving it periodic surges in workloads of varying degrees interspersed with recovery periods, with each surge charging the body with performance gains.

kung fu

kung fu shares the same purpose as endurance sports in using training cycles to improve performance. however, because of what i perceive to be its connections to traditional Asian medicine, kung fu also seeks to improve overall health. this means not just competitive performance, but physiological, mental, and spiritual health, along with attendant virtues such as patience, diligence, self-discipline, decisiveness, etc.

from what i can tell, in kung fu training cycles take the form of seasonal or annual (perhaps even multi-annual) iterations. i don't know if this is kung fu in general or if this is specific to my class, but i suspect it is a reflection of traditional Asian medicine and historical Asian culture, both of which seem to have a sensitivity to human activity on time scales much greater than Western societies.

from what i've seen, practitioners of kung fu will repeat a curriculum in a specific style multiple times during their training, with each repetition incorporating another layer of nuances and detail into the education. the curriculum in a particular style may last months (at the minimum) or years (at the typical). to advance in the style, the practitioner invariably has to complete the curriculum several times, each time focusing on a different aspect of understanding.

for example, the first time learning a style like tai chi, the student would spend 1-3 years going through the curriculum focusing on learning techniques and their applications. on a successive iteration of the curriculum, the student would be taught the same techniques and applications, but incorporating use of breathing and mental focus. on a later iteration through the curriculum, the student might be taught more subtle details of the techniques and further variations in their application. the nature of the material being introduced is in part a function of the student's maturity level (physical, mental, spiritual), skill development, and learning ability. ultimately, to achieve mastery, a student may be expected to study a curriculum a minimum of 2 or 3 times.

in addition to this, training during a cycle of a curriculum may be altered to reflect the seasons, which suffer varying degrees of access to practice and instruction. winter months, because of weather and reduced sunlight, tend to make it more difficult to conduct study requiring large spaces (e.g., encounters with multiple opponents). summer months, because of better weather and longer sunlight, are conducive to teaching and learning a higher volume of material.

the reasoning behind these training cycles is largely derived from traditional Asian medicine and culture, which--possibly because of their ties to Buddhist and Taoist origins--accentuate the matching of human activity in accordance with the natural world. whether spiritual or philosophical, they seem to hold beliefs that health and activity are constrained with patterns in the seasons, the conditions of the environment, and the state of the person. as a result, true mastery of kung fu is interpreted as involving the acculturation of skills to a level that is instinctive, automatic, natural, and which involves conscious and subconscious growth that requires whatever time is typically needed for any biological organism to adapt and grow. for organisms as complex as the human body and mind, this means not weeks or months, but seasons and years of adjusting to the seasons, responding to the environment, and nurturing the self.

there is some veracity to this in terms of Western science. a common example is research that shows a connection between human mood and energy, melatonin, and sunlight, wherein cases of depression and sluggishness are believed to be the result of depressed melatonin levels whose production has been suppressed by the lack of sunlight in winters. as a result, particularly for people in Arctic regions unaccustomed to the long darkness of winters in high latitudes, doctors frequently advise an adjustment period of 1-3 years, along with treatment in the form of melatonin supplements or artificial light.

mutual lessons

i don't these differences mean that one side is right and the other wrong, and that any one side should be automatically discounted thereof. the fact that there's substance and support for each side indicates that both have validity, and so suggests that both should be retained as truth. if anything, because there is validity for both sides, i think each side would benefit from sharing their perspectives with the other regarding training cycles.

to begin, i think kung fu (and perhaps martial arts in general) could stand to integrate the lessons of modern sports medicine. i can think of a number of reasons:

  • with its ties to traditional Asian medicine and culture, kung fu benefits from eons (as literally centuries or millenia) of empirically proven methods and solutions. however, this heritage is not replete without some flaws. in particular, much of its knowledge is drawn from fragmentary documentation (many texts and treatises have been lost or destroyed) or oral histories, either of which is fraught with the dangers of fabrication, exaggeration, distortion, or mis-interpretation. in contrast, modern sports medicine is derived from replicable, peer-reviewed research tested by the open debate and review of scientific discourse. as a result, i think kung fu's reliance on traditional training practices are more susceptible to question relative to more modern, more clearly proven sports training methods. i think kung fu (and martial arts) would be greatly aided by a greater level of insistence on directly observable and, more importantly, replicable results from traditional training.
  • kung fu, while it has benefited from its training cycles covering seasons and years, does not focus as much on the shorter-term training cycles characteristic to sports. as a result, i think kung fu misses out on key notions of development, such as base, build, peak, and recovery phases. from what i have seen, kung fu training does not really acknowledge the advantages of a "bellows"-style training schedule to elevate capabilities, nor the idea of cyclical progressions of macro and micro-cycles. moreover, it doesn't even seem to recognize the connection between various components of the body's fitness and the different components of training: base, build, peak, and recovery. i think training in kung fu would yield greater performance if it were to note just how crucial each of these components are in producing growth, and figure out how to integrate them with its existing understanding of long-term training cycles.

reciprocally, i think endurance sports can benefit from incorporating kung fu practices. the reasons i see are:

  • modern medicine doesn't know everything. because of its use of a scientific method that insists on replicable, verifiable research, endurance sports (and sports medicine in general) uses a process that takes time to discover and evaluate new training methods. this has constrained it from aggressively pursuing new concepts or ideas in training. kung fu (and traditional Asian medicine), however, offers a history of training methods that, while new to Western science, already have some pre-existing level of empirical substantiation that could provide directions for promising concepts and solutions. modern sports might very likely save time and resources by looking to kung fu for ideas; in effect, kung fu would act as a sieve highlighting potentially valid methods out of myriad possibilities, enabling scientific analysis to focus research on a select few methods rather than having to spend resources pursuing many.
  • modern sports science (including endurance sports) is fixated on shorter-term macro and micro-cycles. it doesn't recognize the role that seasons, environment, or changes in biology have on training. endurance sports locks onto specific races, and then structures training for those races, irrespective of the time of the year, the nature of the athlete's surroundings, or the state of the athlete. i think modern sports might discover that training results (and hence potential performance) would improve by adopting kung fu's recognition and adjustment to time and place, as well as kung fu's understanding of how time and place act on an athlete--not just for a single training cycle of weeks or months, but over many successive training cycles extending to years or tens of years. in effect, kung fu (and traditional Asian medicine) is operating beyond macro-cycles in what might be labeled "meso" cycles. while perhaps not of use in a short-term goal of preparing for a particular event, it is something of potentially great value for long-terms of extending a career and ensuring lasting performance capabilities.

essentially, my thinking is this: endurance sports training (and modern sports medicine) has knowledge that views people as biological machines which can be manipulated for enhanced performance via training for specific races, whereas kung fu (and traditional Asian medicine) has knowledge that views people as biological organisms which, like any other biological organism, can be endowed with superior health that lasts over an entire biological lifespan. one, being performance-specific, is very target-fixated; the other, being health-specific, is more holistic and situationally aware.

but these differences are not incompatible. they can be combined to benefit both sides. because of its performance focus, endurance sports training deals with shorter time frames compared to kung fu training, which is more concerned with overall health. i think that endurance sports can learn to extend performance longevity (i.e., extending racing careers) and quality of life by borrowing from the longer-term methods of kung fu, while kung fu can learn to maximize its training workouts and performance growth by looking to the shorter-term methods of sports science.

i don't claim that improvements will be automatically proven in results. i caution that all of this is speculation. however, i think that there's enough plausibility to warrant consideration and research via empirical experimentation and analysis.

i suspect that a good number of people, whether endurance athletes with exposure to martial arts or martial artists with exposure to endurance sports, have already explored collaborative use of training cycles of both sides. but i would like to see more formal review of this matter, with a more scientific research apparatus (with test subjects, experimental group, control group, replicated results and findings, etc.).

for me personally, it'll be something that i'll have to continue observing. i haven't had that much time--at least, not as much as would be required to study the integration of micro, macro, and meso-cycles (i.e., years). and the only subject i know of is myself. but i'll see what i find.

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