In engineering there is this rule of optimization which says you can’t optimize for everything in a system. You have to choose what few functions or goals to prioritize and give greater resources to and which to strip resources from.  You can’t have it all, but you can have one of those things you want most if you optimize the system to produce this most desired result.

 

Optimization For Athletics

We face these kind of optimization dilemmas because we have a scarcity of time, energy, attention, biological resources, and things like that. 

Triathletes become aware of this, especially if they were once a high performer in one of those particular sports. The limited time per week for training means that most triathletes might get in two or three practices for each discipline, while an athlete who focuses on just one sport, such as swimming, can practice five or six days a week (sometimes twice a day!) and thereby achieve a higher level of performance in that single sport, than a triathlete can in any of the three. 

Triathlon training is so intriguing because of this dilemma: how to get the best productivity out of so few practices, and which of the disciplines to emphasize in training so that she has her optimal arrangement of skill and fitness among the three sports that gets the best race result she  can get?

And, within a single sport such as swimming, there is the optimization needed for training to be faster at short distances, versus training to handle steady work at longer distance. The kind of metabolic and muscular specialization that happens for sprint racing (like 200 or shorter) is quite different than what happens for distance swimming (400 to 1500), and more changes for those who work on long distance swimming in open water (such as 5k and longer). That is why we rarely see an athlete (like the current Katie Ledecky) who can dominate a wide range of distances.

 

Optimization For Longevity

There is another dilemma for optimization that we face, of great concern to all of us, but I do not notice many coaches or athletes talking about it openly. 

We all feel urged by social and advertising media to be faster, stronger, more dominant now over all the average people around us. But how much do we feel encouraged to live in such a way that we have a body that will still function very well when we are 100 years old and beyond?

PS – When my wife read the draft of this essay she asked why I chose to say ‘100 years old’ when most people only expect to live into their 80’s? That question encourages my main point – our culture has us living in such a self-destructive manner that dying in the 80’s is considered normal, when we have ample evidence now to encourage us to aim much farther than that.

In other words, the dominant voices urge us to go after a short-term gain – at an unspoken long-term debt – while there are few voices urging us to go after a long-term gain (e.g. longevity) with a short-term debt (e.g. not being the fastest in my age group). Or in other words, do we want to stand high on the podium over our peers now, or be the one standing on the podium at 100? Do we want a body that dominates now only to crumble in ten years or a body that can function well in forty years while everyone else is dead or peddling around in wheelchairs, popping pain meds? 

In longevity studies such as the Blue Zones project, we see that the longest-lived people have steady, low-intensity effort all day long – such as walking with their sheep through the mountains, cleaning and cooking manually, chopping wood, tending the vegetable garden, walking to the market, and things like these. These are not people who, as a rule, did extremely stressful exercises, pushing their bodies for years and years. But they did expose themselves daily to appropriate stress that activated rejuvenating mechanisms in their bodies.

These longest lived people were not runners or triathletes. They just did their traditional daily work and stayed fit because of it. They have not had a destructive sedentary or ‘sitting lifestyle’ as most of us do today. Where you and I might go out for a one hour training session and call it a day on getting sweaty, these folks might work as much but distribute that across ten hours. Where we try to work the body hard and burn thousands of calories in that one hour then we sit down in an office or vehicle seat for the rest, these folks stay on their feet and work more slowly and steadily across the whole day. 

Granted, longevity studies have been conducted with people who have reached their 100’s in the last thirty years or so, while popular athletics as we know it just emerged in the 1970’s so that we are just waiting to see the statistics of how well this modern generation of master athlete bodies will do in their 80’s, 90’s and 100’s. Some of them will look and feel great. But will most of them? 

So far, history shows us that it’s the generally low-intensity-and-steady dose of physical activity through out the day that seems to be the route the previous generation of ‘longevity athletes’ have taken to get into their 100’s with a good functioning body and mind. But can we modern folk do it with one exercise hour a day a few days a week, and occasional weekend races?    

That is the question of optimization we face in wanting to be faster now versus wanting to live longer in a sweetly functioning body. In some ways the pursuit of greater strength and speed can serve longevity, while in others it can compete with it. In some ways taking it easier is really good for longevity, while too much ease can cause our early degradation and death – it depends on your position on that longevity lifestyle scale.

Which Podium Are You Aiming For? 

At 16 years old I had worked too hard with too little technique and blown out both rotator cuffs and had to quit swimming for three years to let them heal. As an aspiring triathlete, by 21 I had messed up my knee from over-training and had to give up running and cycling. In my mourning over the loss at such an young age, I received an unusually early enlightenment. The anticipation of my inability to run and play freely with my future kids and grandkids grieved me deeply. It was then that I realized I wanted to have a body that functioned really well for a hundred years more than I wanted to prove to myself and my peers that I was a fast and tough young athlete now. That began my passion to ‘train for old age’ which continues today, 20-plus years later.

And, ongoing, this clear priority encourages my disregard to prove to others what I am capable of against my peers right now – I don’t need to be on the podium now while I am training to be on that podium 50+ years from now. Though I do pursue greater challenges in swimming and running, what I aim for and how I go about it is all guided by this priority. I cannot have it all, but I know clearly what I want most. I can prepare to compete when it’s in the interest of my goal to do so, or ignore the external pressure when it doesn’t serve that goal. 

In some areas of life we may be able to strike a balance between our desires. In some things we simply have to choose one and let go of the other. Some activities we can enjoy for a season then let go, without that achievement now preventing us from doing other things later. But some of our pursuits now might come at the cost of being able to do things with this body later in life.

That’s the serious question we face in not just how we set athletic goals and go about training, but in how we go about living each day outside of athletic activities. What do we want our bodies to be capable of in 10, 20, 40+ years from now? Are we living and training in such a way to get there? 

The advice we seek out, the training program we follow, the guru we look up to – we should look at not just what they produce in the short-term to grow their program reputation. Every business is trying to satisfy us with an immediate reward for our money. Instead, we should look at what they produce in the long-term to see if that matches our values. There are programs that will make us stronger and faster now, but use approaches that are statistically shown (such as this swimming injury epidemiology study implies), despite individual successes, to mess up the bodies of a great number of people who follow that path. And, there are programs – though far too few of them unfortunately – that will have that long-term longevity achievement built into their methodology and optimize for it, even if that means participants aren’t necessarily getting on the age-group podium right now.

So, it is very important to our investment of limited resources that we decide which podium we want to be on and optimize for it. 

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