The book Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (@nntaleb) and it’s ideas have spent the last six months rattling around in my head, and influenced how I think about running, exercise, what to eat, how to live . . . In fact, it’s one of the best health and fitness books I’ve read – even though its subject is risk and probability.
The central premise of the book is a simple idea, best explained by answering the following question:
“What is the opposite of fragile?”
Most people would answer something like robust, resilient, or strong. But these words don’t quite go far enough.
If fragile means something that is prone to breaking or gets weaker with stress, then the opposite is something that gains from stress or disorder, which Taleb calls antifragile.
Once this idea takes hold, it can be applied to a broad range of areas – including fitness, diet, and mindset.
In this article, I’m going to explore how we can apply antifragility to running. To summarize what lays ahead, here’s how I’d differentiate between a fragile and antifragile runner:
A fragile distance runner is one that has developed an ability to run for long periods of time, but little else. Their training has neglected several muscle groups, and as a result, their range of actual abilities is narrow, they suffer from various imbalances and are injury-prone.
An antifragile distance runner can run far, and also burst into a sprint at a moment’s notice. They can jump and lift and race their cyclist friends to the top of a hill. They spend time doing strength training and other functional fitness pursuits outwith running. They embrace interesting challenges and extreme training loads, followed by generous rest periods.
What Is Antifragile?
To further define the term antifragile . . .
Fragile: something that is fragile is going to get weaker or break when it’s subject to stressors. Think of an egg – you’ve got to keep that egg pretty well protected to prevent it from breaking. Any unexpected bumps or drops, and it’s game over for your little egg-shell.
Robust: something that’s robust can be beaten around quite a lot without showing much damage. Things that are robust are often designed for some wear-and-tear, and will be around for a long time…but will eventually degrade. The more stress applied, the faster it will degrade. Most high-quality products we buy are usually robust – they resist wear-and-tear, but aren’t indestructable.
Antifragile: something that is antifragile actually gains from being thrown around or put under load. The classic example is the Hydra from Greek mythology – each time you cut off one head, two grew in its place…making it a stronger and fiercer opponent.
N.B. Antifragility often has a limit – stress up to a certain point is beneficial, but extreme loads can cause failure – as we’ll see.
So you’re saying we can benefit from some stress in our lives?
Yes, precisely. Here, ‘stress’ means some hardship or struggle to work against.
Without stress, our muscles, abilities, and willpower would all atrophy.
Think of a bodybuilder who suddenly stops lifting weight, or those humans of the future from the Pixar movie WALL-E: their bodies atrophied due to a lack of stress.
Examples of Antifragility
The concept of antifragility might initially sound quite theoretical and abstract until you realize just how many realms it can be applied to.
Most physical objects fall into the fragile or robust category, whereas organisms and systems (that are successful) are more likely to be antifragile.
While the book goes into depth about how everything from ethics, to financial markets, to business models can be antifragile, for the purposes of this post I’m going to focus on aspects that relate to running – whether that’s your workouts, diet, or mindset.
Antifragile Illustration: Human Muscles
Probably the best place to illustrate antifragility is in your muscles.
Let’s take a regular, healthy person who likes to do push-ups.
Every time she does a set of push-ups, she’s applying load onto her upper body muscles – she’s putting them under stress.
When she finishes her workout, she goes away and takes some time to recover, eats food which helps repair the muscles. And what is the final result?
The muscles end up stronger.
If our bodies were fragile, then every single push-up would be doing irreversible damage to her muscles.
Remember the definition, antifragile means things that gain from stress or disorder?
Our muscular system is antifragile – it benefits from applied stress (to a point).
The Immune System
Our immune systems, when functioning correctly, are antifragile.
When we’re exposed to a virus, our body might take a hit for a few days as it fights the bug. But eventually, it (usually) figures out how to eradicate the virus, and then becomes immune to that viral strain in the future.
This is the whole idea behind vaccinations – expose our immune system to a small quantity of a disease, so it adapts and learns how to fight it, thus becoming stronger.
Let’s consider another example from the world of physical exercise…
Running vs. Walking
Let’s take an example from the book:
In this example, Taleb uses the example of walking vs. running a mile to show why stress is good. Of the two brothers in the example, they both arrive at their destination at the same time, but the runner (as well as having more free time) puts more stress on his body by going at a fast speed, so will likely benefit from better gains in fitness and strength than the walker.
(N.B.: As someone who walks 10 – 15km every day, I’m a big believer that there are many benefits that you don’t get from running. The above is to illustrate that the more acute the stressor (or speed), the bigger the health or strength benefit. It seems Taleb is an ardent walker too).
Antifragility Means Introducing Random Chaos: A Tale Of Two Sisters
The whole principle of antifragility is that stress, or chaos, is introduced to a system in an uneven or unpredictable way.
For example, let’s say there are two sisters who each run 30 miles a week.
Sister A runs exactly 4.28 miles every day, without fail, at a comfortable pace, to make up her 30 miles over the 7 days.
Sister B on the other hand only runs only 3 days per week, but varies her workouts a lot – she does a speed session on Monday, a hill training run with minimalist shoes on Wednesday, then an 18 mile run at the weekend.
Which sister is the antifragile runner?
It’s obviously sister B: she mixes up her training with a variety of different stressors (speed, hills, distance) which will leave her faster, fitter, and less injury-prone (plus she’s likely to enjoy herself more).
Sister A, on the other hand, has very likely plateaued in her fitness and would struggle to run much further or faster than on her daily performance. She’s ‘stuck in the groove‘ of her daily (chronic) workout – which her body will have determined is her baseline – and she’ll be more prone to injury and loss of enthusiasm.
Runners Can Be Fragile!
If you’ve read up to this point, as a runner – or athlete – you’re probably thinking that this is all awesome. All that exercise and miles you’re doing in training is automatically making you more and more antifragile.
That’s not the full picture, unfortunately.
Sister A is a prime example of how runners can get their training plan wrong
In fact, distance runners can be especially fragile.
There’s a stereotype amongst observers that distance runners are only strong in one area, and suck at everything else. And unfortunately, there’s a lot of truth in that.
Before we get into the weeds of how to become an antifragile runner, let’s address the reasons why runners get such a bad rap.
Why Runners Tend Towards Fragility
1.Runners Tend to Embrace Steady-State Activity
Distance running is steady-state: it’s a constant, unidirectional movement at a low-medium rate of exertion that lasts for hours.
Perhaps the biggest downside to distance running is that it is a pretty steady-state activity.
Once you get into distances over say 15km, you’re locked into running at a constant, comfortable speed. This means your body is subjected to a pretty even, unchanging load across the whole workout.
There’s usually no sprints, no breaks, no big hills – just a constant load.
And while this has a bunch of benefits in terms of boosting your endurance (i.e. your ability to run even further next time), there are downsides to consider.
The primary issue is a distinct lack of big stressors – distance runners tend to keep their exertion levels to around 50-70% of their maximum.
Antifragility needs a bit more variety than this – some runs should be performed at 50-70%, others (shorter interval-style runs) at 80-90%.
Distance running strengthens some muscles while neglecting others. It means you end up with strong quads, and weak hamstrings for example – you create and imbalance in your kinetic chain.
And as you keep running, this imbalance becomes more pronounced – some muscles end up doing more than their fair share of the work, while other stop engaging at all. What happens next?
90% of the time, this ends in a knee or hip injury. Most runners’ knee injuries are actually alignment issues caused by kinetic chain imbalances originating in the hip/pelvis area, which are usually the result of running too much without doing anything to correct these imbalances.
2. Runners Tend to Only Run (Neglecting All Other Activities)
It’s a sad fact and is especially true amongst rookie distance runners who get hooked on running far and consequently do it as their only form of workout.
But when you run, and only run, you are neglecting some essential body parts which not only can improve your running performance, but are simply part of the tapestry of a well-rounded, injury-resistant human.
To know if a distance runner is antifragile or not, ask them what their cross-training routine is.
If they look at you with a bewildered look – or worse, make some joke about there being no benefit to them – you can chalk them up as fragile, and know that they’re likely to spend a decent percentage of their future running career at home recovering from injuries rather than outside enjoying their lives.
N.B.: our definition of cross-training is any form of exercise that complements your primary activity, which is running in this case.
Cross-training is a fundamental part of an antifragile runner’s repertoire – in fact, you’ll often find good distance runners have just as many gym sessions as running sessions in their weekly calendar.
Runners who don’t cross train end up with chronically tight or weak muscles (hips and hamstrings being the common culprits) and parts of their body which they completely neglect – the upper body being a prime example.
A strong upper body (core, chest, shoulders, back, and arms) plays a big part in a distance runners’ endurance ability.
So, how does a runner embrace cross-training and antifragility? I’ll get to that in a second.
The Antifragility of Distance Running
Many exercise practitioners (i.e. gym rats, short distance sprinters) look upon distance running with some aloofness – they see the skinnier builds and weird eating habits and decide that marathon runners are weirdos that are torturing their bodies for little practical gain.
But ask anyone who has participated in a Spartan race or similar event which includes a mixture of strength work and endurance, and they’ll tell you that it’s the endurance runners that cross-train who perform the best.
A weightlifter is fragile to endurance – they’ll usually manage to go 20-30 minutes of sustained effort before they’re spent and need to take a break (and usually look in a mirror).
Sure, they might be able to bench press four times their body weight, but they could probably be outrun by their children.
And whether it’s the persistence hunters we are descendants of, or the heroes of ancient wars, myths, or more recent times (see Chris McDougall’s Natural Born Heroes), we can find examples throughout history of endurance (and particularly running) being a notable ability of our species.
As I’ve mentioned above, the steady-state nature of distance running could be classified as somewhat fragile in the long run – if it’s the only form of exercise you do.
But each time you go for a long-distance run, you’re applying acute stress to several systems – which, as long as you don’t overdo it, can strengthen these systems, so you can go longer next time.
In fact, there are several antifragile benefits to distance runs:
- Low-to-mid intensity running uses a higher % of stored fat as fuel (whereas high-intensity workouts use more carbohydrates) – so distance running improves your body’s ability to used fat as an effective fuel source (see my Adventures in Keto and Running article for much more on this topic).
- The thresholds of your muscular exhaustion and aerobic ability increase, allowing you to go longer next time.
- Sustained cardiovascular efforts have been shown to strengthen the heart and improve your body’s efficiency at delivering oxygen, via the blood, to the muscles.
There is a myriad of further, lesser-recognized effects (some positive, some neutral) that occur when you apply a point-load of a 20-mile run to your weekly calendar. But the point I wanted to focus on here is that long-distance runs can act as an acute stressor to many systems within your body, which can serve up antifragile benefits.
How To Become An Antifragile Runner
There are 3 steps to becoming an antifragile runner:
i) strength train by lifting weights (heavier ones are generally better),
ii) perform short, fast interval-style runs,
iii) introduce chaos and other stressors to your training.
A well-balanced, antifragile runner should be strong in several areas:
- endurance strength, developed through their long runs,
- muscular strength, which makes us injury-proof and stronger runners, developed through strength training,
- speed and adaptiveness, developed through speed training and other forms of resistance training (which also complements endurance and muscular strength).
Step 1: Strength Training for Antifragile Runners
Runners already get plenty of cardiovascular exercise, so when it’s time to hit the gym it’s not necessary to worry too much about getting your heart rate up.
And remember, this isn’t about getting a gym bod – it’s about becoming a injury-proof, tough-as-nuts strong runner with bulletproof legs.
We want to focus on improving our strength – so focus on heavier loads, rather than higher reps.
Compound Exercises for Runner’s Strength
If you’re looking for strength training exercises which give the biggest results for the effort expended, then focus on compound exercises.
These are strength training exercises which work a multitude of muscles and joints simultaneously for maximum benefit.
That guy performing single-arm curls with a heavy dumbbell? Sure, his bicep will grow a little. But that’s it. He’s not engaging any more muscles, or working on anything that could be beneficial in other arenas.
That’s why compound exercises are so effective – they work a bunch of muscles groups at once, and usually target the fundamental ones.
Compound exercises worth your time include:
- Kettlebell swings (and most other kettlebell exercises)
One-Rep Max Lifting Exercises
In fact, you ideally want to focus on exercises where you can work towards a one-rep max (find the maximum weight that you can complete only a single repetition); this is actually endorsed by Taleb, who has taken to weightlifting after exploring the concepts of Antifragility in the strength training arena.
The classic heavy lifting exercises which suit a one-rep max philosophy are deadlifts, squats, and bench press.
It’s important to note that each of these requires a good understanding of technique, takes time to practice before working towards a one-rep-max, and can cause injury if done incorrectly. So if you’re not familiar with them, incorporate them at lower weights and higher reps before gradually increasing your weight as you get comfortable.
Step 2: Interval / Speed Training
The other cardinal sin many distance runners commit is neglecting speed work.
Instead, they get into the routine of going for a comfortable long run.
This is heading down a fragility cul-de-sac: the runner’s body gets accustomed to the slow pace, and after months or years can’t snap out of it. They develop chronic tightness or weakness in various muscles, and soon find that the only thing they can actually do is their comfortable long runs.
This is the opposite of an antifragile runner, who should be capable of a myriad of workouts at the drop of a hat – whether it’s the comfortable long run, the challenging hill session, or hitting the gym to work on their squats.
Short, fast interval-style runs train you anaerobically, push your fast-twitch muscles, lactate threshold, running economy, strength, base speed, endurance strength….I could go on.
Step 3: Introduce Chaos To Your Runs
Remember the example of the two sisters I gave at the beginning?
Sister B’s training schedule had a good degree of chaos – instead of repeating the same humdrum route every day, she mixed things up. She had speed sessions, hill sessions, and long runs.
An antifragile runner appreciates the value in switching up their training, and choosing to add in new elements.
Here are a few of my favorite ways to introduce chaos into a run:
Hit The Hills – Hill running is becoming less popular, especially as everyone is trying to book fast paces on Strava. But if you want to build strength, endurance, and have some fun, go run up and down a few hills on a trail (and forget about your pace for a while).
Run On Tired Legs – A conventional training plan will ensure that you have ample time to recover between workouts, but sometimes it pays to be a contrarian. Go for a hard run when your legs are still recovering – whether from a dead lift session or from an interval training session. Getting used to running on tired legs will actually boost your endurance and serve you well in long-distance events (ultras, etc.)
Run In Minimalist Shoes Occasionally – It’s not until you try out minimalist barefoot-style shoes that you realise the amount of support and performance benefit we gain from our cushioned, bouncey trainers. Minimalist shoes take away all that bonus support and force us to run only on our own steam. Minimalist running engages your calves more and can have a positive impact on your running gait. It’s also harder work.
Run With A Pack or Weighted Vest – Glutton for punishment? Try running with a weighted vest to add to the load you’re under. Your body will have to work harder to shift the extra pounds, meaning increased stress to your muscles and cardiovascular system.
Run When It’s Uncomfortably Hot – In summer, most runners either run in the early mornings or evenings to avoid the heat of the day. If you’re looking to make things interesting, wait until just after noon on a hot day and throw your running shoes on. You’ll find it harder to breathe at your regular pace and be forced to slow down as your body adapts and figures out how to thermoregulate in hot climates. But if you can get accustomed to running in hot weather, you’ll feel the gains in winter. (Same can be said of humid weather, where it’s harder to breathe – as someone who spent years training in Mumbai, I can attest to the performance benefits of regular sauna-style training conditions).
Run On An Empty Stomach (Or Better, In Ketosis) – Many experts will tell you that to run well, you need fuel, and fuel means carbohydrates. I’m generally in that boat, and recommend to most runners (especially those following a marathon training plan) that they need to get plenty carbs. However, I’ve also spent a lot of time running in ketosis, and am a big advocate of using ketosis to boost fat adaptation (something that many elite ultramarathon runners already know well). Why should you consider going for occasional runs on an empty stomach, or in ketosis? Because otherwise, your body is going to be accustomed to getting its standard packet of carbs before a run, and start to expect that sports nutrition and gels are simply a way of life – and over time, their effectiveness could wane. It’s why I only take energy gels when I want to perform. Introduce some stress by going for a run when there’s no fuel in the tank.
Do Something That Stretches The Limits Of What You Thought You Were Capable Of – Running can get tedious for some of us once you hit a certain level. If you’ve ticked off a few of the standard distance events like 10k and half marathon, it’s easy to regress in your training as you feel you’ve done it. That’s when it’s time to do something bold and ambitious – set a new goal that motivates you to stay engaged in your training for the next several months or more. For me, it was running self-supported multi-day races in weird countries (which essentially become a test of your antifragility). Maybe for you, it’s run a sub-20-minute 5k, or tick off a bucket list marathon. Whatever it is, make your goal audacious – you’ll stretch yourself to achieve it.
In short, if you want to be an antifragile runner, it’s time to embrace:
- a variety of running and functional training workouts,
- running under various constraints or stressors,
- strength training,
- generous rest periods (when the mood hits you),
- and a sense of adventure in their approach to running events.