Tuesday, 12 June 2012

In praise of inefficiency

There’s a good deal of information out there dealing with efficiency, as it relates to lifting, running and other athletic feats.  I want to start out by saying I’m in no way arguing against efficiency as a key to success in a lot of areas.  I only want to present the counterpoint that in some contexts, the deviation from robotic, perfect technique can be worthwhile and interesting.

Alan Watts, in his book Philosophy of the Tao II, talks about an engineering approach to nature, i.e. looking at nature only from the perspective of efficiency.  He writes:

“The engineer has no interest in inefficient processes.  If I wanted to go from here to there, the engineer would direct me to take the shortest possible route so as to complete the journey in the shortest possible time.  That would be the most efficient way to go about it: by taking a straight route rather than a wiggly one.  But one takes a wiggly route not only to better fit one’s path to the contours of the land but also just for the pleasure of winding along and enjoying the ride. Enjoyment of winding and wiggling is really fundamental to life.  Life is wiggly, and it isn’t wiggly just because that is the easiest way to be.  It is wiggly for the pure love and beauty of wiggling.”

Watts makes this point in reference to a lot of different areas in life, aesthetics for instance (the visual appeal of the fluid and asymmetrical), but also goes on to draw a connection to running:

“When people run, those with an engineering mentality go jogging; they plod, chunking along a course.  Those who really understand running, however, dance the course.  They will swerve and run delightfully on their toes, and they are really more effective runners than joggers are because they wind along in a rhythmic pattern and do not have “getting there” in mind.  They are not exercising out of a sense of duty.  And as they run they have no real particular purpose.”

I find that my most enjoyable runs are all of this type.  My wife will always ask when I head out for a late night run, “Where are you going?” And I understand why she asks, in the sense of if she were asked to ID the body, but I’m always loathe to give an answer, for the precise reason that I don’t want to make up my mind quite yet.  That’s not to say that you can’t have a general idea.  But to outline a specific route and time seems to take the enjoyment out of it.  It’s nice to allow the environment and the body’s response to that environment a bit of leeway to deviate.  On some cool, breezy nights I get the urge that I could run forever, and obstacles that would seem daunting ordinarily appear more surmountable.  Fire hydrants and fences seem like they should be vaulted over, walls tic-tacked, puddles leapt over rather than avoided.

I suspect that’s part of the reason that trail running seems so much more enjoyable (at least to me) than running on a track – in the sense that there’s constant variation coming at you and you must adjust and react instinctively.  In fact, there have been some studies to show that people run faster and farther on wooded trails than they do on tracks and treadmills (your-brain-on-nature).  It also explains the rising popularity of obstacle racing and mud runs such as the Spartan Race and Warrior Dash, which despite being ‘races’ with set goals, have an almost nostalgic, child-like feeling of rejoicing in movement for movement’s sake.

I’m no expert traceur, but it also seems to me to characterize a bit of the distinction between free running and parkour, with parkour emphasizing efficiency and moving through an environment in the quickest possible way, and free running focusing more on the ‘wiggle’, the unexpected flourish.  Both have their place I’m sure.  If you’re competing in a 100m sprint, you probably are aiming at efficiency of movement and may want to refrain from too much spontaneous movement for the sake of self-expression!  Likewise, when maxing out on an Olympic lift – biomechanical efficiency should probably be paramount.  In other cases, however, much of the interest lies at the margins – the liminal spaces where efficiency bleeds into serendipity, purpose into purposelessness.  A leaf spiralling to the ground in autumn, the steam curling skyward from a teapot – these things have no purpose, but are captivating nonetheless.

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