Intent & Variability: Notes from Frans Bosch


I’m currently navigating the deep waters of Strength Training and Coordination: An Integrative Approach by sprint coach Frans Bosch. This is some thick reading. Among many things, he discusses two concepts that have grabbed my attention.

Move with intent

I’ve read and written in the past about the idea of internal vs. external movement cues. Anyone who’s golfed, skied, played tennis or performed almost any sort of sporting movement knows that if we focus on how we execute the movement (internally directed) then we’re screwed. Rather, if our focus on accomplishing the task or directed on our environment (externally directed) then we have a good chance of performing well. The way we direct movement is fairly powerful. Bosh makes several statements that have drawn my attention.

  • “If two or more movements share the same intention, then the system marks them as related.”
    This goes to sport specificity. It matters in that if we want a particular exercise to transfer to our sport then the strength movement should share the same intent as the sport movement.
  • “So the body does not think in terms of processes, but in terms of the results of the movement.”
    This happens constantly throughout our day. When we step out of the car, put something on a shelf, lift groceries out of the trunk, etc. we don’t think of how the joints, bones and muscles do the job — we just do the job. Why don’t we take the same approach to our gym exercises?
  • “In coaching, including sport-specific strength coaching, this transfer must be effected as as well as possible. That is why it is a good idea, wherever possible, to add an intention to a strength exercise that has no clear intention of its own.”
    This relates to the first bullet point. I must work to choose the right language and analogies in order to get my clients to use an external focus. Choosing the right language is sometimes very challenging!
  • “If attention is focused outside the body on features related to the movement, then the movement and motor learning processes will be controlled more effectively. Controlling movements effectively is thus a matter of focusing attention externally, and hence using vision effectively (making optimal use of central and peripheral vision).”
    The execution of movement skills suffer if the athlete pays too much attention to how the task is performed. Look at targets. Move toward or away from them.
  • “Directing attention at the result and hence the intention of the movement provides room for the intended organization of the movement…”
    Intent-driven movement with an external focus fits with how we learn motor control.  In contrast, focusing on contracting muscles, joint position, and posture goes against the way in which we learn to move. (Think of how a baby learns to move. No one gives a baby instructions on how to roll, reach, crawl, or stand up. The baby just figures it out.)
  • “Besides providing information for learning, KP [knowledge of performance which is externally directed] information also increases motivation, which may well be the most important driving force in learning.”

Movement variability

Movement variability is a big deal. (I’ve discussed it here, here and here.) Bosch talks about movement monotony and variability:

  • “However… if the movements during coaching are repeated again and again in an unchanging environment, the learning effect will be less than if the performance and the practice environment keep changing. The link between sensory and motor patterns must be shaken up in order to generate motivation to learn. Sensorimotor chaos is, if you like, the basis for learning. (Schollhorn et al., 2009)”
    Doing the same thing the same way in the same environment gets boring. We don’t learn when we’re bored. By varying the training environment we can avoid boredom, maintain motivation and thus keep learning. Thus, I need to continually change things for my clients and myself.
  • “It [variation] is so important that the reason why periodization models appear to work so well is not the perfect planning of the components in relation to one another, but above all the simple fact that periodization leads to variation in training.
    I’m not sure this is entirely true but it’s an interesting idea. I wish he would provide data to back this up. I hope it’s true but I’d like to see supporting information.
  • “Variation is therefore the first and most important training principle, along with individualization.”
    This makes sense. In the simplest terms, if we never add weight, speed, volume or complexity to an exercise then it is impossible to make progress.
  • “Of course it is training for endurance sports that is at most risk of monotony… However, if the athletes include strength training in their total programmes, variation increases. That is why strength training for endurance athletes yields not only coordinative and perhaps physiological benefits, but also the important benefit of reducing monotony in coaching.”
    I’m glad to hear this. If variation is as vital as Bosch suggests, then gym work is a simple way to provide that variability. I have several questions:

    • What’s the best way to strength train endurance athletes?
    • Endurance sports vary widely from swimming to running to cycling to skiing. Does each discipline require different strategies?
    • Should strength work replace some endurance work?
    • What’s the best way to fit strength work into the endurance athlete’s training schedule?

There’s more to read and digest…


Two Big Reasons to Trail Run (or just hike.)


I’ve been trail running consistently for several weeks now. I see this as a marker of success in both the continuing rehab of my reconstructed ACL (surgery was May of 2014) and in overcoming stubborn Achilles tendon pain. If all this nice

progress continues, I plan on running the Aspen Golden Leaf half-marathon in October (Damnit!  It’s sold out. I need to move on that earlier next year.) and then the Moab Trail Marathon in November. So all this trail running has me thinking…

Nature & depression

Good for me.   Good for you.

Good for me. Good for you.

An article in the Atlantic titled How Walking in Nature Prevents Depression discusses a study that demonstrates the real psychological benefits to tromping around in the outdoors. Specifically, the researchers found this:

“Through a controlled experiment, we investigated whether nature experience would influence rumination (repetitive thought focused on negative aspects of the self), a known risk factor for mental illness. Participants who went on a 90-min walk through a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination and showed reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness compared with those who walked through an urban environment. These results suggest that accessible natural areas may be vital for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.”

When I’m on the trail, I’m very much “in the moment” as the saying goes. I am consumed with the ground and where I put my feet. I’m aware of the plants, the rocks, the temperature, and if I’m in the right spot, I might hear the rush of a stream. I Iam deeply engrossed in the experience. Rarely if ever do I think about the hassles and conflicts that await me in good ol’ “civilization.”

Searing physical exertion is often a part of my trail running experience as well. Despite the pain, I keep coming back. It would seem some part of my brain wants to be there.

Trail running & movement variability

I’ve mentioned the idea of movement variability (here and here). It (to me) is an exciting concept and a hot topic in sports skill training and injury pre-/rehab circles. The smart people at Cor-Kinetic discuss movement variability in this impeccable blog post. The writer states:

Viva movement variability!

“Movement variability is inherent within a biological system. Not only is it inherent it is also beneficial for reducing risk of overload and enabling the ability to adapt to events that occur within our ever-changing environment. Elite athletes cannot reproduce exact and invariant movement patterns repetitively even through hours of devoted practice. The best movers are those that can execute the same stable end point skill but in many variable ways dependant on the constraints and context of performance. It could be that part of being resilient and robust lies in variability. The ability to tolerate load may come in part in the way in which it is internally processed through our coordinative variability.”

If we think about trail running, then we see that it takes place in a highly variable, constantly changing environment. As we run (or walk) we can’t consciously think about how we place our foot every time we step. Rather we must react. This is a job for our subconscious and our reflexes. The movement variability researchers suggest that through this process we may protect ourselves from a lot of potential injuries. (Nothing in the world however can protect us from all injuries.)

On the trail, we have to stay upright, balanced and moving while our running parts deal with all sorts of odd angles and shapes. The great part about negotiating this rocky, rooty, up-and-down environment, is that our feet, ankles, knees, hips—and especially our nervous system—builds what I call a movement database. Our brain soaks up the subtle changes in movement that we experience so we increase our runnings kills. We have an opportunity to as the Cor-Kinetic post says, “execute the same stable end point skill but in many variable ways dependent on the constraints and context of performance.” Our tissues are stimulated in a remarkably well-rounded way so that we become more durable than if we run only on flat, monotonous surfaces.

I’m pleased that I’m not the only one thinking this way. (I’d love to come up with an original thought some day.) Similar observations on trail running are discussed in the article titled Trail running – Natural rehab?

The writer describes his own experience in trail running:

“Despite running long distances over challenging terrain and including more hills than I’ve ever done before I have far less pain running on a trail than I do on the road.”

And he suggests the mechanism by which this process may work:

“I’m not the only one to find this, so how can trail running reduce pain and help injuries?

It’s all to do with repetitive load – running on a fairly uniform surface stresses the same areas of the body over and over again. Those areas become overloaded and you start to develop pain. Trail running involves a variety of different surfaces – I usually run over grass, mud, gravel and forest ground with treacherous tree roots. This variety means the load on the body is constantly changing rather than overloading certain areas. It may also act as its own rehab – your body adapts to the constant challenges to your control and stability. Running a trail becomes like an advanced balance work out.”

Wisely, he goes on to discuss when trail running may NOT be the right thing for you and how to gradually introduce trail running into your routine.

All of this is anecdotal evidence. I don’t know of any strong studies that show trail running will fix any given injury. That said, a trail run fits the bill very well for a variable movement experience and it’s my belief that many runners who aren’t trail running will benefit from adding some time on the trail into their schedule.


More Hip Mobility From GMB


I’m a fan of mobility. I put a premium on my clients and I having a large “movement database.” I’m not just talking about flexibility mind you. On that note, I like Dr. Andreo Spina’s words on mobility vs flexibility:

“By my definition, mobility and stability are intimately related. Mobility, which is often confused with ‘flexibility,’ can be defined simply as the ability to move or to be moved freely and easily.  Another way to think of it is the ability to actively achieve range of motion.  Flexibility by contrast is the ability to passively achieve range of motion.  It is therefore possible to be very flexible, however have limited mobility.  The former implies that you can passively achieve a particular range, while the latter implies neurological control of a particular range as it is being actively attained.”

I’m also very interested in the concept of movement variability. What is “movement variability?” Todd Hargrove of discusses it as such:

“Good movement is not just about harmonious interaction or coordination between the different parts of the body. It is most fundamentally about how the system interacts with the environment, particularly in response to unexpected changes. In other words, good movement implies a quality of adaptability and responsiveness to a changing environment.

One can imagine building a humanoid robot that can walk with flawless symmetry and grace. But if the robot cannot adapt its gait pattern to accommodate changes in the terrain, it will fall each time it steps on a rock, and its movement skill is essentially useless. True movement intelligence therefore doesn’t exist so much in the movements themselves, but in their interaction with the environment.

The graceful stride of the deer isn’t useful unless it can be modulated to jump a log and avoid a wolf. A soccer player who can execute technically brilliant ball handling skills in solo practice does not face the real test until she performs those moves in a game situation against an opponent who is trying to steal the ball.

We would not say that someone is fluent in a language if they have only one way to communicate a particular thought, regardless of how perfect that particular communication is. Similarly, one is not fluent in the language of movement unless he can accomplish the same goal in many different ways.”

Why do I mention movement variability? My last blog post was about hip mobility and in it were several different hip mobility drills. This post is also about hip mobility and it features a bunch of different drills. Which ones are best? Who knows? With regard to movement variability, I think it’s probably a good idea to do a lot of different mobility drills and frequently experience novel movement.

Recently I discovered  (Yes you read that right.) I’m not sure what GMB stands for but I have enjoyed looking through their content which is very much mobility-centric. Their 8-exercise hip mobility sequence (below) is great! I’ve been using myself and with my clients. Lately I’ve been alternating between this series and the series in the prior post.




Hip Mobility Sequence


I’ve been using the following drills with a lot of my clients as well as with myself. Is this the be-all-end-all collection of hip mobility exercises? Probably not, but I think it hits several nails on the head in terms of movement that’s available to the hips. I think these drills may be especially useful for cyclists and those who are desk-bound. (I’ll be very honest and tell you that I’ve stolen these moves from both Gary Gray and Andreo Spina.) I do them in the order presented but for no other reason than that’s how I do it. You could do any of these in any order.

I use these with most of my clients a lot of the time. I personally use them after a bike ride or long trips in the car or on a plane.



Play, the Brain & Neuroplasticity


I just found a fascinating video that speaks very much to some of the things I’ve been reading lately (and have read about in the past.) It’s an interview with a man named Stephen Jepson. In his former life he was a very accomplished ceramics maker and teacher (Is that what they’re called?  Or potter?) He founded the World Pottery Institute and he even has a piece in the Smithsonian. Now his focus is Never Leave the Playground.

A grown-up at play

Jepson is in his 70s now and he literally spends his waking hours at play. He runs around, hops, crawls, juggles, rides a skateboard (and a variation thereof), elliptical bikes, and generally moves about the earth in very novel, random, playful ways. He’s not only having fun and staying fit, he’s also stimulating his brain in powerfully healthy ways according to research. More on that in a moment. Here’s the video:

Jepson says that his play improves such brain skills as cognition and memory. He seems to be very spot-on according to several things I’ve been reading.

Todd Hargrove discusses play in chapter four of A Guide to Better Movement . He suggests:

“In the contest of movement, play can be thought of as a safeguard against habitually using the same movement pattern to solve a particular motor challenge and ignoring potentially better solutions.

Thus we can look at our motivation to play as a natural incentive to experiment with new solutions, even if they don’t appear superior at first glance. We could also look at play as a way to ‘return to the drawing board’ or start over from scratch on a movement problem without preconceived notions about the right or wrong way to move.”

What this says to me is that novel, unusual movement gives us the opportunity to build a broad movement database or maybe a movement Swiss Army knife. We add to our available movement repertoire when we move in as many ways as possible in as many environments as possible: rolling on the ground, climbing, crawling, standing on different surfaces, moving at all speeds, lunging in many directions. Perhaps as a result, when confronted with a movement scenario that’s a little out of the ordinary our brain may say, “Oh, I’ve been here before. I have multiple strategies for moving safely and effectively here.”

The science of play & the brain

In his book, Hargrove references a NY Times article titled Taking Play Seriously. It states:

“For all its variety, however, there is something common to play in all its protean forms: variety itself. The essence of play is that the sequence of actions is fluid and scattered. In the words of Marc Bekoff, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Colorado, play is at its core ‘’a behavioral kaleidoscope.’”

 ‘I think of play as training for the unexpected,’ Bekoff says. ‘Behavioral flexibility and variability is adaptive; in animals it’s really important to be able to change your behavior in a changing environment.’ Play, he says, ‘leads to mental suppleness and a broader behavioral vocabulary, which in turn helps the animal achieve success in the ways that matter: group dominance, mate selection, avoiding capture and finding food.”

This flexibility and growth potential of the brain is known as neuroplasticity. Though Stephen Jepson doesn’t use that word in his interview, he’s talking all about neurplasticity as he describes the benefits to his brain and both vigorous physical activity and play. His thoughts are supported by research:

  • Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, Beneficial effects of physical exercise on neuroplasticity and cognition: “The results suggest that physical exercise may trigger processes facilitating neuroplasticity and, thereby, enhances an individual’s capacity to respond to new demands with behavioral adaptations. Indeed, some recent studies have suggested that combining physical and cognitive training might result in a mutual enhancement of both interventions.”
  • Archives of Medical Research, Physical activity, brain plasticity, and Alzheimer’s disease: “We conclude from this review that there is convincing evidence that physical activity has a consistent and robust association with brain regions implicated in age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. “
  • In Runner’s World Sweat Science column, Alex Hutchinson discusses research from the European Journal of Applied Physiology. He says, “Sure enough, the… test showed that the skill athletes had greater motor cortex plasticity than non-athlete controls, while the endurance athletes showed no change.”
  • The Importance of Play, Dr. David Whitebread, University of Cambridge: “For example, playful rats have been shown to have significantly elevated levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is recognised to have a central role in developing and maintaining neural plasticity (or, the ability to learn). They have also demonstrated that play supports novel neural connections and changes the architectural structure of significant brain regions. Play deprived rats became more aggressive to other rats, were less able to mate successfully, and showed heightened levels of fear and uncertainty in novel environments.” (To be clear, this is a rat study but similarities have been seen in observation of humans.)

Inside my brain

All of this is enormously fascinating and inspiring to me. It has me thinking a lot about my own fitness process as well as that of my clients. I’ve been doing a little indoor rock climbing lately and that’s a completely different type of workout. I’ve also done a little bit of cross-country skiing and I hope to take a lesson and increase my skill there. I look forward to trail running and mountain biking soon. I find both activities highly engaging, and both offer endless opportunities to negotiate with gravity in myriad different ways.

I’ve discussed my recent experience with the FASTER Global course this summer (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV). As a result, my eyes (and brain) have been opened very wide to almost infinite opportunities for innovative, play-like movement strategies.

My hope is that my clients are having some degree of fun already but now I’m thinking much more about injecting an aspect of play into our sessions. Lots to think about…