A Thought Experiment
Let us play a little thought experiment. Imagine a computer game with two battling athletes. You are able to create an athlete in this game and endow him or her with points for all 10 adaptations: strength, cardio/respiratory endurance, stamina, flexibility, speed, power, agility, coordination, accuracy and balance. Let us imagine that the computer can simulate anything from a CrossFit WOD, to a military mission, to a police arrest, to a straight up fight between the two athletes. There are a limited number of points that you can give each athlete, let’s say 70. Depending on how you allocate the points one athlete will win sometimes and the other will win the other times depending on which adaptations are favored for the chosen task. In a computer-simulated fight, two identically endowed fighters will fight infinitely long or kill each other. In a simulated CrossFit event, two identically endowed athletes will complete the WOD in the exact same time. [Let us put aside the differences based on height and gender as those characteristics are not within the athlete’s or coach’s control. Bodyweight is a relevant variable to some degree but let us assume that ideal body weight and/or composition is a result of an athlete’s fitness and not an adaptation that drives fitness, i.e. improved fitness can lead to better body weight/composition, but merely having good body weight/composition does not mean you are going to be a better performer.]
If you knew what tasks the computer would pick for the athlete’s you might re-allocate your points, but not knowing the tasks that they will be put through, you would opt to be pretty decent across the board: sevens. A score of 7 out of 10 on each of the 10 adaptations would be likely for your athlete to make it through the simulation fairly well. In fact, according to the CrossFit model the computer athlete with sevens across the board should win more times on average than any other configuration.
Given our genetic limitations, we will not be able to achieve scores of 10 on all 10 factors at once. There are limitations to what our bodies can do. There are limitations to how many hours we can train productively. There are limitations to how much energy we can output. However, finding those limits is what a true elite athlete must do in order to excel. And a good coach should be able to train his or her athlete to get as close to those limits as possible.
Seven out of ten seems slightly above average for everything so it feels like a safe bet. What if you were only given 50 points to divide up? Would you still divide it evenly giving the computer athlete 5 points per adaptation? What about 30 points to divide up? Would you give your computer athlete a mere 3 across the board?
Point scarcity, which correlates nicely to resource scarcity like training time, will often cause people to choose to bias their allocations. One person will feel the need to allocate more points to strength and some will allocate more points to stamina. People will try to outsmart the computer or their opponent. Similarly, given a mere 15 minutes in the gym one person will choose a cardio machine while the other person will choose dumbbell curls. Few people would choose to 7.5 minutes of each.
How are “Fitness” and “Performance” related to these 10 adaptations? Are they merely umbrella words to describe them all? Let us make the bold assumption that our “Fitness” is defined as a product of all of these adaptations. How would that play out?
In order to maximize the product of a set of numbers while keeping their sum constant their values must be equal. What? If I have only 12 points to divide between two adaptations, then I want to give 6 to each adaptation in order get their product to be greatest. 6×6 is greater than 11×1, 8×4 or any other combination that adds to 12. If we have to divide our 12 points among 3 adaptations then 4x4x4 is better than any other combination. For four adaptations points should be allocated evenly into 3x3x3x3. If our Fitness is indeed a product of these ten adaptations then the best way to maximize our Fitness is bringing our individual scores all to the same level across the board 5^10 is larger than any other product of ten numbers that add to 50. Thus our computer athlete with 5s across the board will on average out perform and be fitter than the athlete with a 6 on Strength (STR) but a 4 for Cardiovascular/Respiratory Endurance (CRE).
This thought experiments suggests we should seek to be balanced in all areas of our fitness. The reality, however, is we are not computer characters and we do not have readouts that tell us how many STR or CRE points we have. The reality is that people have genes and emotions and biases and motivations that often make training more art than science. Being able to look at your strengths and weaknesses objectively is critical to achieving a balanced fitness. Being able to work on your weaknesses requires being able to leave your ego at the door. Finally, developing this balanced fitness requires being able to stay the course when sometimes there are people faster and stronger than you. A balanced fitness means that on average you will come out ahead but there will be lots of time when you might appear merely average. That can be tough pill to swallow. Ultimately, there has to be a balance between being balanced and doing what we are good at and what makes us happy.
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