To a large degree, our understanding of Bioenergetics has been influenced by a reductionist approach, despite thousands of scientific publications dedicated to the nuances of this topic. Looking at Bioenergetics from a reductionist approach is akin to the well known fable of the blind men and the elephant. This story begins with one blind man, who upon grasping the ear of an elephant, remarks that an elephant is like the sail of a ship. Immediately a second blind man, grasping the elephant's thigh, argues that an elephant is nothing like the sail of a ship, but is instead like the trunk of a tree. The third blind man, clutching the trunk, compared the elephant to a snake; and the fourth blind man, grasping the tale, argued that all of this compatriots were incorrect. It was clear that the elephants was like a thick piece of rope.
Using a reductionist approach, all of these men were correct, in part. The elephant is like all, yet like none, of these individual observations. It is only by observing the entire elephant that one can explain the individual contribution of each part to the whole. This isn’t unlike the study of bioenergetics, or the subsequent ‘energy system’ based training approaches that have risen as a means of providing an ‘answer’ for how we should properly train. By oversimplifying complexity, and trying to create training ‘cookbooks’, we focus too heavily on one area or another, and forget to view the whole picture- assumptions, cognitive biases, and ignorance all become more prevalent when we start to overlook the intricacies of dynamic systems. Which, naturally leads us to assume ‘education’ is the natural antidote, but oftentimes textbook education simply produces illusory confidence, further perpetuating the our incompetence.
Insidiously, the incompetent do not know, or rather cannot know, how incompetent they are. Logical reasoning demands this lack of insight. In order to recognize your own ineptitude you’re required to possess the very expertise you lack, which isn’t possible. Because it’s easy to judge others, it may be tempting to think this doesn’t apply to you- trust me, i’ve been there. But, the issue of unrecognized ignorance is one that plagues us all- especially in fields driven by applied science that routinely invest in popular beliefs that promise quick solutions to long term problems.
Afterall, athletes will always search for an edge to achieve their goals; and talk about maximizing physiological adaptation is appealing. But, understanding these fields takes time, which is something athletes don’t have; and as a result they turn to well intended coaches who appear to be experts in ‘energy system’ training, or otherwise, buoyed by something that feels like knowledge. This is where, as a coach, I’ve found myself over the course of the past few years. I’d continuously build models, apply them to my athletes with a great degree of clarity, and then go through a new major paradigm shift that can only be described by the term ‘dazed and complex’. It’s not that my models weren’t effective, and honestly I doubt any of my athletes have even noticed the underlying changes in their programs, but I always felt like something was missing. I spent so much time changing my answers, when in reality I needed to change the question.
The outdated, textbook, models of training no longer serve us, and with the changing of the guards a new biopsychosocial model will come to the forefront. Whereas the old dualistic model created a strict distinction between body and mind, the new model considers the interaction of biological, psychological, and environmental factors. In an effort to reconcile research with practice, and bridge the gap between hard science and experience, i’ve recently been utilizing technology like Moxy (short for muscle oxygenation) Monitors, which allow me to continuously monitor tHB (total hemoglobin + myoglobin) and SmO2 (muscle oxygen saturation) levels in an athlete's tissues in real time- no more guessing, or theorizing.
Not only has this technology allowed us to collect live physiological data, that helps us identify an athlete's weakest link (ie- their heart, respiratory system, ability to use lactate as an intermediate energy source, etc), but it’s also been a potent reminder that our classical ideas about bioenergetics aren’t entirely accurate. At this point, were still slaying sacred cows; and honestly, I don’t believe we know enough information to espouse new truths, so rather than wax poetic about a paradigm that’s still shifting i’ll leave you with the fun stuff.
Below are two charts, both recorded from Crossfit games athletes undergoing testing on site. Without knowing anything about the charts, measurements, or tests, it’s fairly easy to see that these two athletes solve the ‘physiological puzzle’ presented to them in testing in unique, and different, ways.
The amber line represents total hemoglobin, and the green line represents oxygen saturation, which simply refers to the percentage of hemoglobin, and myoglobin, that are carrying oxygen at a given moment in time. I won’t go into elaborate detail about the actual assessment, but this information indicates an athletes physioloigcal limitations, as well as what types of protocols they need to improve. Also of note, before I discuss the differences between these two athletes physiologies, is the fact that they got the exact same scores on this test.
Athlete #1 has good mitochondrial and capillary density, but they’re limited in their ability to transport and deliver oxygen to the muscles. The data indicates that they’re creating vascular occlusion, which slows the removal of blood from a particular muscle group, and as a result cardiac output needs to increase in order to manage blood pressure and break ‘blockages’. Over the next few phases this athlete's training will include intervals designed to challenge cardiac output without creating a massive oxygen demand in the extremity muscles, ischemic preconditioning, eccentric based strength work intended to improve synchronization of muscle recruitment, as well as manual therapy and movement work aimed to decrease systemic tension in the extremity muscles.
Athlete #2 has a respiratory system limitation, which is one of the most complicated limiters as it can be caused by a weak diaphragm, too much or too little carbon dioxide in the blood (which will shift the hemoglobin dissociation curve), as well as poor breathing mechanics. It can also be due to a local muscular endurance limitation, where the respiratory system acts as a compensator, though this isn’t the case in this scenario. For this athlete we’ll want to keep their heart rate down, and work their respiratory system without integrating their extremity muscles, which is best accomplished with a spirotiger. We’ll also aim to address this limitation via properly structured interval training sessions, and by ‘pre-fatiguing’ the respiratory muscles prior to mixed modal sessions as a means of creating breathing limitations with less total mechanical stress.
Our intent here is not to create more complexity in training, but to simply and get as much adaptation with as little investment as possible.
Again, these athletes performed the same assessment, and got the same absolute result in terms of output. If we were to view this through a reductionist lens, we may look at the time domain of the workout, relative intensity, and the chosen modality to draw a conclusion that these two athletes both need to prioritize training in a given ‘zone’ or energy system. However, when we take a peek under the hood, we see that these two athletes have very different physiological limitations, despite identical performance outcomes, and in order to maximize their strengths, and minimize their weaknesses, we cannot view training through an overly systematized myopic lens as it will never reflect the complexity of our biology. It’s funny, the more I learn, the more I realize how few ‘truths’ there are in this world. At some point I thought this cycle would end, and i’d ‘know’ something for certain, but until that day comes i’m ready and willing to let go of ideas that no longer serve me, or fail to reflect the true nature of reality.
“And if you don’t know, now you know” - The Notorious B.I.G