Good health: we need it for running and much more

Today, I would like to deviate a bit from running training to talk about something relating to the foundation for success in all sport: good health.

You cannot improve your performance unless you are already in good health. The human body is an amazing design, and it will always prioritise critical repairs over ‘luxury’ repairs. So if you have been exposed to a toxin (for instance) or you are suffering from some form of malnutrition (or food allergy) then your body will first prioritise resources to fix these problems before it builds new layers of fitness for you.

Maximum training benefits therefore require maximum health. In 2020, some people will have been more concerned about their health than previously. Our media spends lots of time talking about disease and illness but not as much on what we can do to maximise health.

No matter how you view the risk of any type of disease symptom (cancer, flu, cardiac disease, covid, diabetes), it would always be useful, valuable and worthwhile to do everything in our own power to ‘maximise our health’.

To help with this, I would like to remind my readers of a concept I covered 8 years ago: ‘evolutionary’ medicine.

Evolutionary medicine and mismatch theory

Evolutionary medicine is a perspective of health that views most human suffering, illness, and injury arises as symptom of a mismatch between the environment our bodies evolved to thrive in and the environment we live in today. The logic is that our ‘genes’ have certain needs that they need to have fulfilled by the right type of environment. If we live in an environment quite different from what our ‘genes’ need, then we become vulnerable to harm and various diseases manifest as a result.

In modern civilisation the primary focus has then been on trying to mollify or suppress these ‘symptoms’ and, sometimes, even curing them. But the underlying cause is often left unaddressed: the mismatch between our genes and the environment we occupy. This leads to constant symptom management such as long-term drug prescription or never-ending rehab exercises. We are calming the fire, but never putting it out.

To understand the concept of ‘your environment’, imagine a ‘goldfish bowl’ that is dirty. The goldfish in this dark and murky water will very suddenly stop thriving and ‘get sick’. We now have two options: we can come up with some kind of chemical solution to ‘clean the bowl’ or to ‘inject into the fish to make it resistant to the dirt in the water’ OR we can clean the bowl (or move the fish to another cleaner bowl).

As a coach, I have often observed people who cannot heal from an injury or who stop performing and that this ‘condition’ resists ‘direct attacks’ with remedies such a biomechanical improvement, reduction in training volume and rehab drills. This is a tell-tale sign that we are not addressing the root cause – that the ‘bowl is dirty’ and that we are not going to get anywhere until we clean it.

Where it gets really personal….

This is one of the hardest tasks for a coach because it requires looking at a person’s ‘environment’. This includes where a person lives, what they eat, the air they breathe, the water they drink, the food they consume, the toxins they are exposed to and their psychological state (which can have an enormous effect on human physiology to a point where it is extremely immunosuppressant).

All these factors send ‘signals’ to our body which changes gene expressions, hormonal activity and other factors. If we optimise the signals that we allow our environment to send into our bodies, however, we optimise first health and then as a logical conclusion – also our performance.

When I learnt of this approach, I found it tremendously empowering. It showed to me than rather than being a mere victim to ‘chance’, a victim that had to rely on external experts at every turn to ‘save me’ when I fell ill or got injured, I was in fact largely the master of my own fate. This approach takes work: you need set yourself a mindset where you say ‘my health, my responsibility’ and you need to inform yourself deeply about how all environmental factors influence health (soil, air, water, food, light, electromagnetism, chemicals, exercise, lack of social interaction, lack of shelter, lack of safety etc.) because in this paradigm most solutions can only come from yourself and the choices you make about everything around you on a day to day basis.

It also showed me that my ‘cards where not marked’ simply because I had a history of cancer in my family. As a doctor told me the other day ‘your genes load the gun, but the environment pulls the trigger’ (this is the concept of ‘epigenetics’ – more on this another time). We have the power to change our destiny. What message could be more important than that.

I adopted the same mindset when my second child was born with special needs. Sure, she has some challenges others will not face – but largely I ignored talk of ‘limitations’ and focused on all we could do to optimise her environment – get the best possible gene expression and, I reason, most of the so-called ‘baked in’ illnesses need not occur nor does she need to be considered a member of a ‘vulnerable group’.

It is true that we cannot control the world and if your local authority or a company near you pours toxins into your air, water and soil and you get sick as a result, then technically this was caused by others. I still personally retain 100% responsibility – because I can stay aware of my environment an take actions against anyone who pollutes it or do things to mitigate the harm of these stressors. So even in these situations, I feel we can ‘own’ our health 100%, which is how I personally want to live my life.

Are we meeting our needs?

Another way to understand this – if it is still a bit unclear – is that your body has needs that must be fulfilled to stay healthy.

These needs can be expressed like Adam Maslow did in the pyramid shown below. Some like food and water will be obvious to you. A failure to meet these needs can shorten lifespans either abruptly (lack of food, water) or over time (lack of acceptance, chronic stress, shorten lifespan etc.).

If we look at the year 2020 then consider how many of these needs are not being appropriately met and then consider that human suffering and illness manifests whenever these needs are unmet. I want to mention: I do not believe these needs are actually hierarchical as presented. But they do represent our needs all the same.

I want to invite my readers to an exercise. Read through the examples below and think of the many needs that are not being met to the normal level in 2020 and send me your thoughts. I will publish your suggestions – along with my own thoughts Monday or Tuesday next week.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a scalable vector illustration on white background


Once, we go through it together, I think we can arrive at a more sophisticated view on how to maximise the chance that every person in our society stays as healthy as possible. We will be able to see which health interventions support our needs and which sabotage them.

Postscript: an important question?

As a personal comment I will also ask that we consider this: so far (in Ireland), we have invested near 18 billion in the measures the government has taken so far in 2020 to address the ongoing situation.

 In light of the perspective of health introduced here, could we argue that perhaps we could have had a greater overall impact on health if we had prioritised differently?

Take for instance the greatest killers of 2020: cancer and heart disease. These two diseases are hugely linked to optimising the environment around humans so that these diseases do not manifest in the first place. Would we overall do better if we had prioritised differently? I think these are interesting questions that need attention – but I will not delve further into them here as we are getting off the topic of health as a foundation for running. I just want to plant that seed in minds of people better qualified than myself to answer this important question.

Some books I would recommend on the subject explored today: