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What Philosophy Can Teach Us About Endurance

To train athletes to truly push their limits, it helps to draw inspiration from the French social theorist Michel Foucault. Seriously.

Foucault has some important lessons to teach us about how we should coach endurance athletes. (Photo: BONNINSTUDIO/Stocksy)
Foucault has some important lessons to teach us about how we should coach endurance athletes.

The late Michel Foucault was among the most influential social theorists and public intellectuals of the 20th century. He had a lot to say about the nature of truth, the exercise of power, and the history of ideas. He also, according to a relatively recent stream of research, has some important lessons to teach us about how we should coach endurance athletes.

I’ll be honest: when I first came across some of these papers a few years ago—“Social Theory for Coaches: A Foucauldian Reading of One Athlete’s Poor Performance,” in the International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching; “Planning for Distance Running: Coaching with Foucault,” in Sports Coaching Review—I couldn’t help but snicker a bit. And when I tried to read the papers, I struggled to understand the jargon about “Foucault’s analysis of anatomo-political power” and so on.

But I was curious, because one of the key developers of this school of thought is a University of Alberta researcher named Jim Denison—a prominent coaching theorist, a former 3:43 1,500-meter runner, and the author of the canonical biography of Haile Gebrselassie. He knows his stuff. What I needed was an opportunity to see what Denison’s theoretical ideas look like in a real-life track practice, which is exactly what a new paper in Sports Coaching Review provides. Denison’s doctoral student Tim Konoval—a 3:41 guy himself—spent a season working with an unnamed university cross-country team as a “Foucauldian-informed coach developer,” trying to help the coach make specific changes to his training plans, and wrote up the results.

What does that entail? Well, here’s what Denison’s web page says about his socio-cultural approach to coaching: “Through the work of Michel Foucault, he views coaching as a social act whereby what coaches know and do on an everyday basis is as much a relational process as it is a scientific one.” In other words, the interactions between coach and athlete are as real and relevant as the details of how many intervals you do and how much your lactate threshold increases.

Many of the ideas that interest Denison and his colleagues are drawn from Foucault’s 1975 book Discipline and Punish, which argues that the exercise of discipline—specifically the control of time, space, and movement—imposes a hierarchical burden that ultimately makes people docile. That may be an intentional goal of the prison system (which is what Foucault was originally writing about), but it’s not ideal for creating champion athletes, who need to have initiative and self-determination. And yet many of the characteristics of a typical track workout—running around a constrained loop in a prescribed amount of time over and over—seem to perfectly embody Foucault’s idea of initiative-crushing discipline.

How do you change that? Konoval shared four examples of altered workouts that he and the coach implemented to break free from the four key disciplinary domains identified by Foucault.

Time

The tyranny of the stopwatch is the most obvious element of the coach-athlete power dynamic. The coach says “Run this lap in 62 seconds,” and then judges you on how effectively you follow this instruction. But the coach working with Konoval—he’s given the pseudonym “Cliff” in the paper—admits that his athletes seem to be “paying too much attention to their training times instead of homing in on how their bodies are feeling.” This is connected, he believes, to why some of his athletes don’t seem to be able to push to their true limits in races.

The solution is, at least on the surface, pretty straightforward: in order to “destabilize temporal control,” just throw out the watch. Cliff has his athletes run an interval workout with no timing, so that they’re judging the success of each interval based on how they feel rather than how fast it’s “supposed” to be.

Space

In any training group, certain patterns emerge: the same runners tend to run at the front, others in the middle, others at the back. Over time, a pecking order crystallizes, such that each runner on the team internalizes their “correct” position. This spatial control can be helpful (“I’m hurting, but I know I should be able to keep up with Bob”), but it can also be a hindrance if you settle into your usual place rather than constantly challenging it.

In a session of mile repeats, Konoval and Cliff decide to stagger the start times, sending out runners at semi-random intervals so that habitual leaders are sometimes chasing, stragglers are leading, and the usual spatial relationships between runners are disrupted.

Organization

Every race is a search for your individual limits. But in an interval workout, the coach tells you exactly how many repetitions to do, and then you stop. The limit is imposed externally. “How can you expect your athletes to run to their maximum potential in races,” Konoval asked Cliff, “when their practices are not structured in a way that allows them to experience this?” The solution, he suggested, was an open-ended workout where the athletes themselves would decide how many repetitions they needed to do in order to reach exhaustion.

Planning

The coach writes the workout; the athlete does it. That seems like the fundamental assumption of the coach-athlete relationship. But there are times when exerting this sort of control may be counterproductive—for example, when you’re trying to ensure that athletes have recovered from a hard race, which is a highly individual process.

Cliff’s usual recovery workouts, typically scheduled on the Tuesday after a hard race, might be something like 5 to 10 repetitions of 2:00 hard alternating with 2:00 easy. To destabilize this Foucauldian discipline, Konoval suggested instead that the athletes should accumulate a total of 20 minutes at tempo pace, organized in whatever way they felt would benefit them the most—anywhere from 40 repetitions of 30 seconds each to a continuous 20-minute tempo.


So that’s what it means, in practical terms, to “coach with Foucault.” None of these ideas, on their own, is really new. During my own competitive running days in the early 2000s, when I was training with former American record-holder Matt Centrowitz, Sr., he would make me take off my watch and throw it onto the infield—often right in the middle of an interval—if he caught me checking it too often. Similarly, shaking up the order of a training group or letting the athlete choose how far to run are ideas that surface every now and then. But grouping these approaches together gives us a coherent rationale for why coaching runners involves more than simply writing down each day’s workout and monitoring the paces achieved.

The practice doesn’t always live up to the theory, of course. Konoval found that many of the workouts he developed with Cliff didn’t quite achieve the intended goals. In the watchless workout, Cliff still insisted on timing the athletes himself—so the athletes knew that they were still being judged on whether they were running the “right” pace, rather than whether they were feeling the appropriate effort. In the staggered-start workout, Cliff decided to send out some of his top athletes at the same time, so that they could push each other, rather than totally shaking up the usual pecking order.

In the open-ended workout, which was a series of 200-meter reps, the athletes mostly chose to stop after eight, which was the number of reps they usually did for that workout. Cliff figured that was a vindication of his coaching methods: given complete freedom to choose, the athletes chose to do exactly what he usually told them to do. Konoval, on the other hand, saw it as a failure—a telltale sign that the athletes were so docile that they failed to take the opportunity to explore their personal limits.

In the end, whatever jargon you use to talk about it, I think there are some interesting ideas here. I’ve often thought about the years I spent training with Centrowitz, who in some ways was an intuitive Foucauldian. As a nascent running nerd, I was in thrall to what Konoval calls “the dominance of physiological knowledge.” I wanted to run faster, and to do so I thought my prime concern should be mileage goals and VO2max readings and, above all, splits.

Centrowitz, on the other hand, wasn’t interested in that stuff. He would tell me to do a fartlek, and I would ask exactly how far it should be, how long the hard surges should last, and how much recovery I should take. Just feel it, he’d tell me. Run until you’re tired, then take some recovery, then repeat until it feels right. My head would pretty much explode with such impressionistic instructions.

Once, exasperated by my endless pestering about how to hit the right paces, he took me up to his office after practice to explain how to run the Olympic 5,000-meter standard of 13:20. He took out a blank piece of paper and wrote down the number 64. “You run the first lap in 64 seconds,” he said. He paused to make sure I was following, then wrote it down again underneath the first one. “You run the second lap in 64 seconds.” He repeated that 12 times. “Then you sprint the last 200 meters,” he finished, handing me a piece of paper filled with a neat column of 64s. “Got it?”

I didn’t really get it at the time. But at that point I’d never read any Foucault.


My book, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell, is now available. For more, join me on Twitter and Facebook, and sign up for the Sweat Science email newsletter.

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