Sunday, March 6, 2011

Vanishing Point. Zen And The Art Of Training

"Vanishing- point: the point at which receding parallel lines viewed in perspective appear to meet: the stage of complete disappearance."
           - The Oxford Reference Dictionary

Vanishing Point: Make sure you watch the original 1971 film
Typical Gym Conversations

Typical gym conversation no.8

Member: I'd like to book in to get a new program written
Instructor: (Places coffee cup down) Ok, when did you last have a new program?
Member: 4 weeks ago
Instructor: I see (skepticism now kicks in), can I have a look at the program
Member: Sure, here it is
Instructor: This program card looks pristine, have you actually done this program?
Member: Yeah, at least 3 times
Instructor: And what's this, all these other program cards stapled to it. You've got a program from every trainer here. And they are all untouched! Dammit, you're a program whore! You're looking for the magic bullet. Stop wasting my time and get out! (or more realistically, okay, you're a paying member, so I'll write another program you'll never do and a little piece of my soul will die and my bitterness levels will rise another notch).

Typical conversation no.9

Member: I think I need a program update
Instructor: (carefully places his protein shake down) Ok, how long have you been doing the old one?
Member: 2 years, but I'm not getting any results
Instructor: 2 years and no results, wow, that's a long time with no return for your investment
Member: I know, and I train every week, a minimum of three times a week
Instructor: Ok, lets have a look at what you are doing..... so by how much have you increased the weights you are lifting, the time you run for, the speed you run?
Member: Oh, I haven't changed anything, I do exactly what the instructor wrote, I lift the same weights, do the same amount of cardio at the same level and at the same speed. I thought it would be unsafe to increase without someone telling me how.
Instructor: Listen to your body! Train with intuition and most importantly you need some progression. Your body will never have to adapt if you never increase the load or the stimulus. I bet you do cardio while reading a book or watching This Morning. You're making me look bad!

Typical conversation no.12

Member: I haven't trained for 6 weeks because I was ill, what should I do? I need a new program
Instructor: Just do what you were doing before, but lower the weights, times and sets. Take it easy and see how you feel.
Member: I'm not sure how to do that
Instructor: Listen to your body, feel your way back into it. What weight were you lifting before? How far were you running.
Member: Lets see, before I was ill I did a couple of runs, but before that I was on holiday for 2 weeks, I managed to get one gym sessions during that time. But before that I was really busy with work, so only made it to the gym twice that month, and I tried running outside but it hurt after 10 minutes so I stopped.
Instructor: You've got no consistency. Do the basics consistently. It doesn't have to be complicated, a simple program you will follow is the best. Without training on a regular basis you won't have any feel for what works or what your body is trying to tell you.

Simplicity, Consistency, Intensity.

Variations of the above conversations happen in nearly every gym every week.  I've come to the conclusion that most training programs should follow three basic concepts, simplicity, consistency and intensity. If you follow these principles you will get results. I'm going to give you examples of world class runners, weightlifters and martial artists who follow these principles with great success. If they can, so can you and your clients.

And its not all the fault of the gym members, yes some are lazy and don't want to be there but others are just confused by the shear amount of information and disinformation and don't know what to do for the best. Trainers and instructors have written them programs, but no one has shown them how to train properly.

The three pillars of training:

Simplicity: The program doesn't have to be complicated, but it has to be effective and work. In the first example above, the member was looking for the golden fleece of programs. Trainers can end up writing more and more complicated programs to appease the clients boredom and frustration, none of which work because the basics haven't been mastered. As we will see, some of the best Olympic Lifters and Power lifters of all time follow deceptively simple programs. And constant program switching also means no consistency.

Consistency: Mastery of something involves repetition. Without consistency there is no training effect. As we will see below the Kenyan distance runners are the masters of this. In the conversations above, the last member had no consistency, constant breaks from training and interruptions means your body doesn't have a clear run at it. You will never progress because you don't know where you're at.

Intensity: In the middle conversation above the gym goer had consistency, they trained regularly every week. But there was no intensity, they were going through the motions. If you don't stress your body in some way, it will not have to adapt.

The foundation

Before moving onto examples of the three pillars. There is a key element that has to be in place for these principles to work. Without this foundation the pillars will fall down.

In the book Kurikara: The Sword and the Serpent, the author quotes Miyamoto Musashi, the famous Japanese sword fighter:

Discern the advantages and disadvantages of all things
Discover through yourself those things that cannot be seen
Take care even with small matters
Do not do useless things

and explains

Even though the goal is desirelessness, if you do not find a genuine love for this art, leave it well alone      

 - John Maki Evans

In short, before you do anything you need to want to do it. If you want to run an ultramarathon or enter a powerlifting competition, do it because you really want to do it, not because you think others will look up to you or respect you more for doing it. The passion and excitement must be there in the first place, to help fire you through the darker times when you wonder why the hell you're doing this thing in the first place. Conversely, if you hate going to the gym, stop blaming everyone else and making excuses, just stop going and find something else to do, something you actually want to do. Life's too short to waste time.

There is surely nothing other than the single purpose of the present moment. A man's whole life is a succession of moment after moment. If one fully understands the present moment, there will be nothing else to do, and nothing else to pursue. Live being true to the single purpose of the moment
         - Hagakure, The Book of the Samurai

Or to put it another way, how many summers you got left, how many good summers? If time is limited, focus on the things you want to do, simplicity, consistency and intensity require you to first be in the moment doing what you want to do. Of course, this is easy doing something you love. I can't make it any clearer than this.

Time is a funny thing. Time is a very peculiar item. You see when you're young, you're a kid, you got time, you got nothing but time. Throw away a couple of years, a couple of years there... it doesn't matter. You know. The older you get you say, "Jesus, how much I got? I got thirty-five summers left." Think about it. Thirty-five summers.                                                          
- Tom Waits in the film Rumblefish

Tom Waits as Benny in the film Rumblefish. How many summers you got left? How many good summers?


Training programs don't have to be complicated but they do have to work. The average gym bunny does more exercises than an Olympic athlete, but it doesn't make them any fitter. The equipment options are vast now, weights, dumbbells, kettlebells, bands, swiss balls, bosus, cables, vibrating platforms and a million fly by night fads. And personal trainers sometimes try to combine all these equipment options into one workout, utilising sagittal, frontal and transverse movements in 20 exercises variations per workout.

Compare this to the average Olympic Lifter, who does the following:

  1. Clean
  2. Snatch
  3. Jerk
  4. Front Squat
  5. Back Squat
Yes, some of these are technical movements, and they may do some power variations of the lifts and some pulls and presses. But this amounts to about 10 exercises in total, forever!! And the better a lifter gets, the more they focus exclusively on the lifts.

Simplicity in weightlifting

Check out the training programs that Glenn Pendlay gives his Olympic lifters and American Football Players at California Strength. There is rarely more than five exercises in a session. This simplicity allows for the other elements to shine, they can focus on coaching and a fantastic training environment.

In the book The Purposeful Primitive Marty Gallagher outlines the training programs of some of the greatest strength athletes in history.

For example, Bob Bednarski was an American lifter who clean and jerked 486 pounds (220kg!) back in 1968. His training program consisted of the following after warm up sets:

Monday: Clean & Press 3reps x 5sets
Tuesday Snatch 3reps x 5sets
Wednesday: Squat 3reps x 2 sets
Thursday: Clean & Jerk 1 rep x 5sets
Friday: Rest
Saturday: total on 2-3 lifts, work up to max single in 2 or 3 lifts
Sunday: Squat  3reps x 2 sets

Simple as that. Everyday concentrating on one lift. Chemical assistance aside, this guy managed to put 220kg over his head at a bodyweight of 110kg following this program.

And Ed Coan, the greatest power lifter of all time also followed a simple approach, get as a strong as possible in the off season in the bench, deadlift and squat wearing no lifting gear, not even a belt; and crucially never missing a lift in training. He then basically followed a 5 day split program of legs, chest, shoulders, back, light chest & arms. No crazy exercises, the same rep ranges everyone else uses in the gym and progressive incremental increases in resistance. The guy deadlifted 901 pounds at a bodyweight of 219 and squatted below parallel 1003 pounds (455kg) at a bodyweight of 241 pounds! (if you want to know more, go and buy the book The Purposeful Primitive).

In weightlifting you can basically do push movements, pull movements in the upper body, knee dominant & hip dominant movements in the lower body. Pick a few of these and get better at them, and get stronger.

Simplicity in running

The Kenyans are pretty good at distance running. So what do they do differently to everyone else. In his book More Fire: How to Run the Kenyan Way Toby Tanser outlines several of their training programs.

Kenyans generally don't use heart rate monitors or fancy gear, they generally don't record their weekly mileage though most of the marathon runners are hitting over 100 miles per week.

So what do they do? Firstly

"run to improve running." (Tanser, 2008:282)

Couldn't get more simple than that! Tanser also states that Kenyans get a training program and stick to it. If its a 12 week program they follow it exactly, and do exactly what the coach says. The book More Fire outlines the training programs of a whole host of runners from 800 metres up to the marathon. Below is a typical program. Felix Kipchoge Limo has a personal best of 2.06.14 for the marathon:

AM 60 mins easy running
PM As above
AM Fartlek, not less than 15k of 3 mins hard, 1 min easy*
PM Easy running, distance does not matter
Wednesday same as Monday
AM Long run, 38k, start program at 30k and work up
PM Rest
Friday Same as Monday
AM Either 1 min easy 1 min hard for 15k or 2 mins hard 1 min easy for 15k
Sunday Rest

* Can be hill work or speed session 15 x 1000m

(Taken from Tanser, 2008: 229)

Running programs can really only have 4 elements

  1. A long steady run (slow run)
  2. A run where you go fast and then slow and recover (interval, fartlek)
  3. A hill run (can be slow or fast, short or long)
  4. A fast run (tempo runs, or where you try to run as fast as possible for a set distance)
That's it. The distance you are training for will determine the length of these runs, the number of intervals you do and how fast you run relative to your maximum speed. But that is all there is, all training is effectively a combination of these elements. Simple.


Throughout your life advance daily, becoming more skillful than yesterday, more skillful than today. This is never-ending.
           - Hagakure, The Book of the Samurai

To get good at anything requires repetition.

"This is stressed in maxims like 'ten thousand hours achieve the goal' or 'a hundred thousand swings bring mastery'. Yet other factors must be taken into account if repetition is to bring success." (Evans, 2010:1)
This means be wary of going through the motions. You must fully engage in the repetitions and the moment. Sometimes you must battle for fatigue, and this can involve attempts to 'switch off' but this is only possible if you are completely confident in your technique and form. Mindless repetitions are no use.

See the video below of John Maki Evans training in Japan, learning the art of the sword. At the start of the video he states that he trains 30 hours a week, and the art of the sword takes 30 years to master. Now, not everyone is going to go and live in a temple in Japan or stand under a freezing waterfall in the snow (7 mins into the video), but that sure is dedication.

It is a hard concept to grasp for the western mind that after 2 or 3 years of training, one of your teachers would consider that you really hadn't made any progress but that is what one of his teachers says at about 8mins30secs into the video. Training for over 10 years in Japan for 30 hours a week certainly is consistency. We live in a world where people are considered experts and masters after a weekend course. Where exams are designed to make sure no one fails, where quality has been subsumed by quantity and the 'I want it now' attitude.

Of course, training 30 hours a week and living in Japan may not be feasible if you have a full time job, a family and other commitments. But you can certainly take elements of this approach and apply it to your own training. Dedication. You take what fits into the time and place you live.

It is said that what is called the 'spirit of an age' is something to which one cannot return. Although one would like to change today's world back to the spirit of one hundred years or more ago, it cannot be done. Thus it is important to make the best out of every generation. This is the mistake of people who are attached to past generations. They have no understanding of this point. On the other hand, people who only know the disposition of the present day and dislike the ways of the past are too lax.
          -Hagakure, The Book of the Samurai

This applies to weight training as much as anything else.

Consistency in running

As noted above to get better at running, you need to run more. The average beginner or runner doesn't run enough to get better (I include myself in that). Matt Fitzgerald outlines this in his book Run The Mind Body Method Of Running By Feel.

"Most runners run less than they could and would run better if they ran more, but they prefer not to run more." (Fitzgerald, 2010;64)
In essence they like running, but they don't like it that much. And in the real world, you can only run so much when you have to go to work etc and are not a full time athlete. And for the average person, the increase in performance is not worth the effort. As Fitzgerald point out, very few elite marathon runners run less than 100 miles per week. For distance running, getting your mileage up above 70 miles a week means you are going to have to run twice a day.

Consistency also requires volume. You may consistently run for 30 mins once a week, but you are never going to get any better doing that. And if you're happy with that, it's fine. If, however, you want to improve you need to do more, but in the right way. Below is the training program for Deena Kastor when she prepared for the 2004 Olympic Marathon, she got a bronze medal.

Day           First Workout               Second Workout    Third Workout
Mon          12  miles easy               30-60 mins easy
Tues          6-8x 1 mile                   30-60 mins easy      Strength & Plyo
Wed          2 hr run                        30-60 mins easy      Strength & Plyo
Thur          12 x 600m                    30-60 mins easy      Strength & Plyo
Fri             Easy Run                      30-60 mins easy
Sat            8-10 mile tempo run      30-60 mins easy
Sun            long run 2- 2.75hours

Source: Fitzgerald (2010;69)                       

Note the other key thing here is repetition. Doing the same runs and the same workouts over and over again. Both Fitzgerald and Tanser point to this as another reason for the Kenyans success, they do the same training runs, run the same hill, over and over again. This gives you a standard against to measure yourself, if you keep running random distances on all different courses, you will never know if you got any better. And your body doesn't have time to figure out how to cope with a distance, how to pace itself. Try and be consistent with your intervals and hill training, this way you will see if you are making progress. Take you time building up volume, getting to the point of running 70 miles a week takes time. Be patient.

Repetition obviously applies to weight training. If you follow a program for only 6 weeks, and this program has legs only once a week, and you do a standard 3x10 with squats; this means at the end of 6 weeks you would have only done 180 repetitions of squats. If you then replace squats with something else, you really haven't done anywhere near enough repetitions to even be competent at squatting. Let alone thinking about increasing your weights and intensity with the squats. Pick something and do it consistently.


To practice Zen or the martial arts, you must live intensely, wholeheartedly, without reserve - as if you might die in the next instant.
        Taisen Deshimaru - The Zen Way to the Martial Arts

This is easier said than done. Living intensely while you are standing in the queue for the supermarket or waiting for the commuter train to arrive is a hard thing to do. However, you can apply this to training.

Make every repetition count, make every step perfect. This doesn't mean you should finish every training session exhausted, in fact the opposite. You should try to concentrate and be in the moment and feel vitalised.

Now, sometimes intensity does mean you need to go for it. You need to try and lift a heavier weight than last time, you should push to run faster or further.

The Kenyans are the masters of the improvised intense session. They may start with their planned intervals and if they are feeling good, just keep going and going until exhaustion. Spontaneity is important in training, if you are feeling good, then use that energy.

Intensity in running

Hill training is intense. In the training program used by Felix Limo mentioned above he would sometimes replace his fartlek training for hill training, after a 30 minute warm up he would then run up and down a 200m hill for the next 1.5 hours! The famous Kenyan runner Moses Tanui, another guy who can run a 2.06 marathon will often run the infamous 20k hill in the Eldrot region of Kenya that starts at 1300m altitude and climbs to 2700m, he does this in 1hr 30mins! As he says, if you run this hill, you will never fear another hill.

Intensity is about picking something you're not sure you can do. Running through the fear. Try and clean and jerk that weight that you're frightened to pick up over head. We can't all train like we're at the Kenyan Armed Forces Marathon training camp, but you can apply intensity whenever you need to push past barriers in your own training.

Intensity with weights

Donny Shankle, American weightlifter, advocates going maximum every day. Ripping that weight off the floor. He states that a master is somone who lives without fear. You must fear that heavy weight, and overcome it.

Beyond intense

Ray Zahab was one of three guys to run the entire Sahara desert, 4300miles over 111 days without a day off. By his own admission Ray was just a regular dude who decided to start to run. In the documentary film about the run, Ray says

Any limitations we have, we set upon ourselves. If you think you can only run 5-10k, you will only run 5-10k. It's where we set these boundaries.

Vanishing Point Redux

Existing where there is nothing is the meaning of the phrase 'Form is emptiness'. That all things are provided for by nothingness is the meaning of the phrase, 'Emptiness is form'. One should not think that these are two separate things.
         Hagakure, The Book of the Samurai

Somewhere in France: It's the same distance back as it is forward. Run to the vanishing point and then keep going until you disappear
Head for the horizon. Run for the vanishing point. In the midst of  the repetition and the intensity, go beyond the vanishing point, until you disappear. Until there is no you, there is no training, it just is.


John Maki Evans(2010) Kurikara, The Sword and the Serpent, Blue Snake Books
Marty Gallagher(2008) The Purposeful Primitive, Dragondoor
Taisen Deshimaru(1982) The Zen Way to the Martial Arts, Compass
Matt Fitzgerald (2010) Run, The Mind Body Method of Running by Feel, Velo Press
Yamamoto Tsunetomo Hagakure The Book of the Samuria translated by William Scott Wilson
Toby Tanser (2008) More Fire, How to Run the Kenyan Way, Westholme

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